When it comes to Social Security benefits, married couples can sometimes take advantage of benefits not available to individuals. Those who are married can get retirement benefits based on their spouse’s work record, even if they don’t have a work record of their own. People use several strategies to take advantage of these benefits, and some strategies allow the couple to maximize the benefits they receive. If you are married and nearing retirement age, then keep reading as we give you all the details on the best strategies to use for your Social Security benefits. Some of these strategies also work if you are divorced!
Social Security Benefits Available To Married Couples
So, just what benefits are available to married couples? The answer might surprise you, as the Social Security Administration (SSA) offers more than just normal retirement benefits to couples. These are the benefit types available to married couples, and these same options are available to divorced couples in many cases:
— Normal Retirement Benefits
As you might expect, married couples can apply for and receive normal retirement benefits based on their own earnings record. If both spouses worked and earned enough work credits during their working years, then they could each qualify for retirement benefits on their own. These benefits would be calculated separately from each other, and each spouse would receive their own benefit. As with normal Social Security retirement benefits, the amount that each spouse receives each month would be calculated using their own earnings record. The Social Security Administration would calculate each spouse’s average indexed monthly earnings, apply the bend points, and adjust the final amount based on retirement age.
— Spousal Benefits
Spousal benefits are available to married couples, and one spouse can receive benefits based on the earnings record of the other spouse. The spouse receiving spousal benefits needs no work history to qualify for spousal benefits. Generally, you can start receiving spousal benefits at age 62 as long as the primary beneficiary has already started receiving benefits. If you wait until full retirement age to start spousal benefits, then the benefit amount will be 50% of the spouse’s benefit. Starting your spousal benefits early will lead to a reduction in your monthly payment. If you start your spousal benefits at age 62, you can expect to receive only about 32% of your spouse’s benefit.
Spousal benefits are also available to divorced spouses in some cases. As long as the marriage lasted for ten years or more, you can receive spousal benefits based on the work record of your ex-spouse. If the divorce occurred more than two years ago, your ex-spouse only needs to be old enough to qualify for benefits so that you can start your spousal benefits. If the divorce occurred within the last two years, your ex-spouse must be receiving benefits before you can start receiving spousal benefits.
Same-sex couples are also entitled to spousal benefits after the Supreme Court ruling that affirmed their right to marriage. In some situations, these couples might also qualify for benefits if they are part of a civil union or other domestic partnership. A legal marriage is not always a strict requirement for eligibility for spousal benefits.
— Survivor Benefits
A surviving spouse will be eligible to receive a monthly benefit payment based on the work record of their deceased spouse. Generally, the survivor’s benefit will be equal to 100% of the deceased’s primary insurance amount (PIA). If you are already receiving spousal benefits when your spouse dies, you should immediately contact the Social Security Administration to notify them of the death. You can then switch from spousal benefits to survivor benefits, and this should roughly double the benefit that you receive each month. The switchover will not happen automatically, and the switch is usually not retroactive. This means that waiting will cost you money that you cannot recoup.
You should also know that you might be eligible for survivor benefits even if your spouse died well before retirement age. As long as your spouse earned enough work credits during their lifetime to qualify for benefits, you should be eligible for a survivor benefit. You can start survivor benefits as early as age 60 in most cases, although waiting until full retirement age will lead to the highest payment amount. There are some exceptions that allow you to start your benefits sooner, and some of the exceptions still allow you to receive the full benefit amount.
How To Qualify For Spousal Benefits
Now that you know spousal benefits are available, you might be wondering, “When can my spouse collect half of my Social Security?” If you do not have your own earnings record or have earned very little over your lifetime, you might be better off claiming spousal benefits based on your spouse’s income history. Here is how you can do that. First, we will discuss the eligibility criteria for married couples. We will explore options for divorced spouses in the next section. For married couples, the primary beneficiary must have already filed for benefits before the spouse can apply for spousal benefits. Once the primary beneficiary is receiving benefits, the spouse may begin receiving spousal benefits at any time after reaching age 62. However, starting your benefits before full retirement age will result in a reduced benefit amount.
Not only are legally married couples entitled to spousal benefits, but couples who are in a civil union or other recognized domestic partnership can also qualify for benefits. Same-sex couples who are married or participate in a civil union are entitled to the same benefits as other couples. The Supreme Court has affirmed their constitutional right to marriage, and this includes all the benefits that come along with that legal union. If you are wondering how to apply for spousal benefits, the process is easy. Simply apply through your My Social Security account online, call the Social Security Administration and apply over the phone, or apply in person at your local Social Security office.
Benefit Options For Divorced Couples
If you are divorced, you might still be eligible for spousal benefits. First, the marriage must have lasted for ten years or more. Next, your ex-spouse must already be receiving their benefits if the divorce occurred within the last two years. If the divorce occurred more than two years ago, your ex-spouse only needs to be old enough to qualify for benefits. They do not need to be actually receiving their benefits for you to start receiving spousal benefits. You will still need to meet the age requirement of 62 before you can start your benefits. It is also important to note that receiving spousal benefits based on the work record of your ex-spouse will not affect your ex-spouse’s benefit payments.
In addition to spousal benefits, divorced spouses can also be eligible to receive survivor benefits. If you are already receiving spousal benefits when your ex-spouse dies, you need to notify the Social Security Administration so that you can switch to survivor benefits. You should also be aware of the rules about getting remarried. If you remarry before age 60, you will lose your eligibility for survivor benefits from your ex-spouse. However, remarrying after age 60 will not affect your ability to receive survivor benefits from the work record of your deceased ex-spouse.
How Married Couples Can Maximize Their Social Security Benefits
Now that you know which benefits married couples can qualify for, you need to know how you can maximize your benefit payments. There are several different strategies out there, and the one that you use depends on your personal situation. Your strategy will be different depending on whether each spouse has similar earnings, whether one spouse does not have a work record, and other factors. Here are some of the most common strategies that you and your spouse might use to maximize your Social Security benefits.
— Example #1: Similar Earnings History
Consider the example where both spouses in a marriage have similar lifetime earnings. Both spouses have worked for most of their lives, and their earnings history is not that different. Perhaps one spouse earned an average of $95,000 per year while the other spouse earned $75,000 per year. If both spouses have a normal life expectancy or longer, the best strategy is for them both to wait as long as possible to start their own benefits. You can always view your earnings record by creating a My Social Security account at SSA.gov.
Remember that you can start receiving Social Security benefits as early as age 62, but doing so will lead to a reduced monthly benefit. Waiting past full retirement age (FRA) will allow you to accrue delayed retirement credits and have your monthly payment increased. If you plan to continue working until age 70 or have enough savings to live on until you reach age 70, then both spouses should wait until they are 70 years old to start their benefits.
If either spouse has a short life expectancy, this might not be the best strategy. We will discuss what to do in that situation later in this article. However, for those with an average or above-average life expectancy, waiting until age 70 to start your benefits could lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars in more retirement income over the rest of your life.
— Example #2: One Spouse Has No Earnings History
If one spouse has no earnings history, the couple will want to maximize the Social Security spousal benefit. The same situation usually applies if one spouse has a significantly higher earnings history than the other. Perhaps one spouse decided to quit working and care for the children for most of their life. Or maybe one spouse worked only part-time and earned a significantly lower amount than the other spouse. In either case, the couple will want to maximize their spousal benefits to get the most money each month.
Remember that spousal benefits are based on the earnings from your spouse’s record and not your own. To maximize spousal benefits, you should do everything you can to maximize the higher-earning spouse’s benefit payment. This includes working at least 35 years and maximizing the amount of Social Security taxes paid during their working years.
Finally, the higher earner should wait until age 70 to start their benefits if financially possible. This will max out the payment that the spouse will receive. The lower-earning spouse should wait until full retirement age to start spousal benefits. While you can start spousal benefits as early as age 62, doing so will result in a reduced benefit. There is no need to wait past full retirement age because spousal benefits will not increase with delayed credits. You should also remember that the high earner must apply for benefits before their spouse can start receiving spousal benefits.
— Example #3: Shorter Life Expectancy
Some couples have health concerns or shorter life expectancies due to family medical history. In that case, it is usually wise for the couple to start their benefits early. On average, one spouse needs to live well into their 80s for it to make sense to delay the start of their benefits to age 70. Even though the benefit payment at age 70 is much larger than the payment at age 62, it will take several years to make up the difference in the missed payments during those eight years.
Consider a couple where each spouse only has a life expectancy of 75 years old. In that situation, it makes the most sense for them each to start their benefits as soon as possible. This means that each spouse would start their benefit at age 62. It really makes no difference whether each spouse is claiming their own benefits or claiming spousal benefits. Due to their shorter life expectancies, their lifetime retirement income from Social Security will be higher by starting their benefits as soon as possible. This is true even though their monthly payment is reduced from their full primary insurance amount.
— Example #4: Maximize Survivor Benefits
Some couples are in a situation where they should consider maximizing the survivor benefit. Remember that a surviving spouse is entitled to receive 100% of the deceased spouse’s benefit payment. In some cases, this amount could be much higher than the surviving spouse’s own retirement benefit. The lifetime benefits paid to the surviving spouse could be significantly higher if the survivor benefits are maximized.
This strategy usually works best for a couple where one spouse has a much higher income than the other, and the lower-earning spouse is expected to outlive the higher-earner. In that case, the best thing to do is for the higher earner to wait as long as possible to start their benefits. Not only will this increase that spouse’s payments during their lifetime, but it will also increase survivor benefits for the rest of the surviving spouse’s lifetime. In some cases, this strategy could lead to thousands of dollars in extra Social Security payments over the lifetime of both spouses.
— Example #5: File A Restricted Application
This Social Security claiming strategy only works if one spouse reaches age 62 before the end of 2015. The restricted application strategy is one of the Social Security loopholes that the Bipartisan Budget Act closed. However, there is still an exception for some individuals. Here is how it works.
The younger spouse should go ahead and start their own retirement benefit upon reaching age 62. This will allow them to start receiving Social Security income based on their own record. The older spouse should wait until full retirement age and file a restricted application for spousal benefits only. This will allow the older spouse to receive spousal benefits while their own benefits continue to accrue delayed retirement credits.
Upon reaching age 70, the older spouse should switch from spousal benefits to their own higher benefit amount. At age 70, their own benefit will max out, and this strategy can allow couples who fit within the exception to increase their Social Security checks over their lifetime and receive a much larger benefit than couples unable to take advantage of this loophole.
Social Security Spousal Benefit Loopholes
In the past, retirees have taken advantage of the Social Security spousal benefits loopholes to increase their Social Security income and accumulate larger retirement savings. However, the loopholes have essentially been closed by Congress, with only minor exceptions. The first loophole was discussed in the previous section of this article. This loophole was known as the “restricted application loophole.” It is sometimes called the “deemed filing loophole.”
The restricted application loophole allowed one spouse to file an application for benefits but restricted that application to spousal benefits only. This would allow the spouse to receive spousal benefits while allowing their own retirement benefits to accrue delayed retirement credits and grow larger. Upon reaching age 70, the spouse could switch from spousal benefits to their own benefit, which would be much higher at that point. This strategy is now only available to spouses who turned 62 before the end of 2015.
The other loophole is called the “file and suspend strategy.” Remember that your spouse must already be receiving Social Security benefits before you can begin receiving spousal benefits. In the past, the law allowed your spouse to claim their own benefits and then suspend those benefits until a later time. By suspending their benefits, they could accrue delayed retirement credits. However, the spouse could still claim spousal benefits. Today, you can still apply for benefits and suspend them. However, all benefits associated with your work record will be suspended. This means that any spousal benefits associated with your record would also be suspended during this time.
Maximum Social Security Payment For A Married Couple
Even though you might utilize the best strategy to maximize your Social Security payments, there is still a maximum amount that you can receive. In 2022, the maximum Social Security retirement benefit that an individual can receive is $4,194. So, if each spouse is receiving the maximum benefit based on their own work record, they could be receiving as much as $8,388 together.
If one spouse is receiving spousal benefits, things are a little different. Suppose that one spouse is receiving the maximum amount of $4,194. However, spousal benefits are only 50% of the spouse’s benefit amount. So, the spouse receiving spousal benefits could only receive up to $2,097. The couple could be receiving as much as $6,291 per month.
There is also a family maximum for Social Security. This typically applies to people on disability who have multiple dependents who qualify for payments. The family maximum is no more than 150% to 180% of the primary beneficiary’s payment amount. Since spousal benefits are only 50% of the spouse’s benefit, the family maximum is usually never an issue in that case. However, if dependent children qualify for benefits, then the family maximum might come into play.
The Bottom Line
Married couples can take advantage of some Social Security claim strategies that are not available to single individuals. Spousal benefits and survivor benefits allow a spouse to receive Social Security benefits even if they do not have a work record of their own. Even ex-spouses can qualify in many cases. The rules for these benefits differ slightly, and the strategy that works best for you will depend on your personal situation. If you have any questions about the best way to claim your benefits, you should always get the help of an expert when performing financial planning.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do married couples get two Social Security checks?
Yes, married couples can receive two Social Security checks. If each spouse has their own work history, then they can both receive their own retirement benefits. However, even if one spouse does not have a work history, that spouse can still receive spousal benefits based on their spouse’s work record. In either case, each spouse will receive their own Social Security check each month.
How much Social Security does a married couple get?
The amount of Social Security a married couple gets depends on their lifetime earnings and their age. If both spouses were high earners for at least 35 years, then they could potentially each receive the Social Security maximum each month. This would lead to a combined payment of over $8,000 each month. However, most couples receive much less than this. If one spouse is receiving spousal benefits, then they would get 50% of the primary beneficiary’s payment amount. For instance, if one spouse receives $2,000 per month for their own benefit, the other spouse could get $1,000 per month in spousal benefits.
When can a wife collect half of her husband’s Social Security?
So, when can a spouse claim spousal benefits? A wife can collect half of her husband’s Social Security upon reaching full retirement age, assuming that he is already collecting his benefits. You cannot start spousal benefits until the primary beneficiary has already applied for benefits. A wife may start receiving spousal benefits as early as age 62, although she will not receive half of her husband’s benefit. Her amount would be reduced because she started her benefits early.
When should married couples claim Social Security?
The best time for a married couple to claim Social Security depends on their situation. For those with average or above-average life expectancies, it is usually wise to wait as long as possible to claim benefits. This is especially true when both spouses have similar earnings histories. However, those with lower life expectancies almost always benefit from starting their payments as early as possible. Even though the monthly amount will be lowered, they will still end up receiving a higher cumulative amount over their lifetime than they would if they waited until later to start their benefits.
What happens to your Social Security if you get divorced?
Divorced spouses can still qualify for spousal benefits and survivor benefits. Typically, the marriage must have lasted at least ten years to qualify for benefits based on your ex-spouse’s record. Your ex-spouse must already be receiving benefits unless the divorce occurred more than two years ago. In that case, the ex-spouse must simply be old enough to qualify for benefits. Getting remarried before age 60 will cause you to become ineligible for survivor benefits from your ex-spouse’s record. However, remarrying after age 60 will not affect your potential survivor benefits.