Most people understand that you must have paid into the Social Security system to receive retirement benefits upon reaching retirement age. However, did you know that you can get Social Security benefits based on your spouse’s work history? This means that you can get a monthly benefit payment even if you do not have sufficient earnings history to qualify on your own. This even applies to ex-spouses in some cases. So, when can you claim these spousal benefits, and how much will they be? Keep reading as we give you a full breakdown of Social Security spousal benefits, including how they work and how much you can expect to receive.
What Are Social Security Spousal Benefits?
Social Security spousal benefits are retirement benefits paid by the Social Security Administration to the spouse of a primary beneficiary. When Social Security started, many women did not work outside the home. The Social Security Administration (SSA) quickly realized that many women would not qualify for benefits because they did not have a sufficient earnings record. So, spousal benefits for wives began in 1939. This allowed a married woman to collect benefits upon reaching retirement age, even though she did not work enough to qualify for her own benefits. Husbands were not allowed to claim spousal benefits until 1950.
Similarly, the rules for ex-spouses who wish to claim spousal benefits have traditionally been more beneficial to women than men. Only fairly recently have the rules become more standardized so that the same rules apply to both men and women — regardless of who the primary beneficiary is. Spousal benefits are often converted to survivor benefits after the passing of the primary beneficiary. The widow or widower may then switch to survivor benefits to receive a higher amount than they normally would using only spousal benefits.
Who Qualifies For Social Security Spousal Benefits?
There are a few eligibility criteria that must be met to qualify for spousal benefits. Here are the basics, and then we will dive into a few exceptions to the basic rules. First, your spouse must already have filed for his or her own benefits. You cannot apply for spousal benefits until your spouse has already applied for their own benefits. Next, you need to be at least 62 years old to qualify for these benefits. If you are caring for a child under 16 or a disabled child, then the age requirement will be waived. This means that you could apply for spousal benefits at any age, as long as your spouse has already applied for his or her benefits. Many people wonder whether a second wife can get Social Security spousal benefits. The answer is yes. Even if you have an ex-spouse receiving benefits, your current spouse can still qualify for benefits as well.
An ex-spouse may also qualify for spousal benefits, although the rules are a little different. First, the marriage must have lasted at least ten years. Next, you must not be remarried. If you remarry, this can completely disqualify you from receiving spousal benefits based on your ex-spouse’s work record. Finally, you must be at least age 62. There are a few exceptions here if the ex-spouse is deceased, but we will dive into those a little deeper later in this article.
Same-sex married couples are also entitled to spousal benefits after a Supreme Court ruling in 2015. This ruling afforded these couples the same constitutional rights as other married couples. Social Security retirement benefits are included in those rights. In some cases, some civil unions and domestic partnerships might even qualify you for benefits. The qualifying rules there are a little more detailed, so you should just go ahead and apply for benefits if you think that you are entitled to them.
When Can A Spouse Claim Social Security Spousal Benefits?
A spouse can claim Social Security spousal benefits as early as age 62, as long as the other spouse has already applied for benefits. You cannot claim benefits until your spouse has claimed benefits using their own record. This rule applies to both a current spouse and a divorced spouse. However, if the divorce happened more than two years ago, the ex-spouse can claim spousal benefits at age 62 even if the primary beneficiary has not started benefits. As long as the primary beneficiary is eligible to start benefits, then spousal benefits can be claimed at that time.
If you are raising a child under 16 or a disabled child, then the age requirement gets waived. This means that you can apply for spousal benefits as soon as your spouse applies for benefits on his or her own record. Likewise, if you have a deceased spouse, then you can apply for benefits as early as age 60.
Even though retirees can claim benefits as early as age 62, this does not mean that it is always wise to do so. Starting your spousal benefits at age 62 will nearly cut your benefit amount in half. Remember that this is the amount you will receive for the rest of your life, so waiting until full retirement age (FRA) is certainly the best option. If it is financially possible for you to do so, then you should wait until full retirement age to claim your spousal benefits. This will maximize the amount that you will receive.
How Social Security Spousal Benefits Are Calculated
The calculation for spousal benefits is fairly straightforward. If you wait until full retirement age, then your benefit will be 50% of the spouse’s benefit amount. However, starting your benefits early will reduce your monthly payment. Your benefit will be reduced by 0.7% for each month that you begin your benefits early, up to a 36-month reduction. So, if you start your benefits at age 62, then you will only receive 32.5% of your spouse’s primary insurance amount.
To calculate Social Security benefits for the primary beneficiary, you will need to perform a few different calculations. You could sign up for a My Social Security account at SSA.gov and use the estimator tools there. That is the easiest way. However, if you wish to calculate the amount on your own, here is what you need to do. First, you need to determine your average indexed monthly earnings over the highest 35 years of your work history. This means that you will need to take your 35 highest years of income, index them to current values using the Social Security index tables, and divide the sum by 420 to obtain the average monthly amount.
Next, you calculate your primary insurance amount by determining the Social Security bend points applicable to you. You will receive a certain percentage of your earnings between each of these bend points. The sum of those amounts is your primary insurance amount. Finally, that amount may need to be adjusted if you start your benefits early or wait until after full retirement age to start them. Starting payments early will lead to reduced benefits while waiting later to start benefits will result in higher payments.
If you are eligible to receive your own retirement benefit based on your own earnings record, you will receive the higher benefit amount. Several years ago, there were a few spousal benefit loopholes that allowed married couples to maximize their Social Security spousal benefits. For instance, a spouse might go ahead and start claiming spousal benefits at age 62 while allowing their own benefit to continue to grow. They could accrue delayed retirement credits on their own benefit all the way to age 70. Upon turning 70, they would switch from spousal benefits to their own benefits. This would result in a much higher monthly payment than they would have otherwise gotten.
Similarly, many married couples used the file and suspend method of applying for benefits. This is where the higher earner would file for benefits, but suspend the start of the benefits until age 70. This allowed the spouse to start receiving spousal benefits since the primary beneficiary had already applied for benefits. However, both of these loopholes were closed by legislation in 2015, which took effect in April 2016.
The legislation that was enacted closed the loopholes a couple of ways. First, an application for benefits now acts as an application for all benefits to which you are entitled. You can no longer submit a deemed or restricted application for spousal benefits only. If you apply for spousal benefits, then you are also applying for benefits based on your own work record. You will receive the higher of the two amounts.
Similarly, you can no longer receive spousal Social Security benefits if your spouse has suspended their own benefit payments. So, if your spouse’s Social Security benefit is in a suspended status, you cannot receive spousal benefits. No payments will be made on the earning spouse’s record until the primary beneficiary starts to receive benefits. If the primary benefits are suspended, then all Social Security payments associated with that earnings record are also suspended.
Social Security Spousal Benefits For Divorced & Widowed Spouses
When it comes to retirement planning, many divorced and widowed spouses wonder whether they can still receive spousal benefits. The answer depends on a few different facts. Here are the rules you need to know when it comes to divorced or widowed spouses receiving spousal benefits.
— Divorced Spouses
Even though you are divorced, you might still be eligible to receive spousal benefits based on the work record of your ex-spouse. Here is how you can qualify. First, the marriage must have lasted at least ten years. If you were married for less than ten years, then you generally will not be eligible to receive benefits from your ex-spouse’s record. Next, you must not be remarried. As long as your ex-spouse is living, then getting remarried can disqualify you from receiving any benefits based on their record.
You must also be at least 62 years old unless you are caring for a child under 16 or a child with a disability. Finally, your ex-spouse must already be receiving his or her benefits. If the divorce was finalized more than two years ago, then the ex-spouse does not need to be already receiving benefits. As long as they are eligible to apply for benefits, then you can go ahead and claim spousal benefits if you meet the other eligibility requirements.
You should know that you can still be eligible to claim spousal benefits from your ex-spouse even if he or she has a current spouse who is also claiming benefits. This will not reduce or affect your benefit amount in any way. Similarly, if you receive benefits based on your own earnings record, your benefit payments will not be affected if your ex-spouse claims spousal benefits.
— Widowed Spouses
The rules for widowed spouses are slightly different than those for ex-spouses. Here is how those rules work. First, you should know that survivor benefits are higher than regular spousal benefits. Survivor benefits allow you to receive up to 100% of your deceased spouse’s benefit amount. A widow or widower may start survivor benefits as early as age 60, although the benefit amount will be reduced. In fact, a disabled surviving spouse can start benefits as early as age 50. However, you should wait until full retirement age, if possible, to claim these benefits as waiting will lead to the highest payments.
Unlike spousal benefits, getting remarried will not affect your survivor benefits as long as the remarriage occurs after age 60. So, you can continue to receive the full amount of your survivor benefits after the remarriage occurs in that case. If you receive spousal benefits and your spouse dies, you should notify the Social Security Administration immediately. You can switch over to survivor benefits, which will result in approximately double the amount of your payments. Note that these benefits are usually not retroactive, so the longer you wait to notify the Social Security Administration of the death, the more money you are potentially losing.
Maximizing Spousal Benefits For Divorced & Widowed Spouses
Now that most of the spousal benefit loopholes have been closed, there are not as many strategies for maximizing your spousal benefits. One of the biggest tips for maximizing your benefits now is to wait as long as possible to start your benefits. Starting benefits early will lead to lower payments while waiting until full retirement age will allow you to receive the highest benefit possible. Remember that waiting past full retirement age does not provide any value when it comes to spousal benefits or survivor benefits. Those benefits will not continue to grow past full retirement age, so there is no need to wait beyond that to start your benefits.
Another important thing to remember when it comes to widowed spouses is the fact that your deceased spouse did not need to reach retirement age for you to qualify for survivor benefits. Even if your spouse died before reaching retirement age or starting benefits, you might still be entitled to receive survivor benefits. Your spouse only needed to earn work credits for a minimum of ten years for you to qualify for a spousal benefit. So, this means that you might be entitled to a benefit even if your spouse passed away years before reaching retirement age.
If your spouse received Social Security Disability benefits at the time of their passing, you might also be entitled to receive a survivor benefit. In addition, any minor children of the deceased are likely also eligible for a survivor benefit payment. You can easily apply for these benefits online through SSA.gov or by scheduling an appointment at your local Social Security office.
Most people choose to work with a qualified financial planner to assist them with maximizing their benefits. Remember that you also need to take into account Medicare premiums and other expenses when planning your budget for retirement. If you or your spouse receive a government pension, this can also affect your Social Security payments.
The Bottom Line
A spouse can claim spousal benefits at age 62 as long as the primary spouse has already applied for benefits. The age requirement can be waived if the spouse is caring for a child under 16 or a disabled child. An ex-spouse can claim spousal benefits at age 62 as well, as long as the marriage lasted for ten years. If the divorce occurred more than two years prior, then the ex-spouse can claim spousal benefits as long as the primary spouse is eligible to apply for benefits. There is no requirement that he or she actually be receiving benefits already. Upon the death of the primary spouse, the spousal benefits can be switched over to survivor benefits. This allows the surviving spouse to receive 100% of the deceased spouse’s primary insurance amount.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the rules for spousal benefits of Social Security?
To qualify for spousal benefits, you must be at least age 62, and your spouse must already be receiving Social Security benefits. Even an ex-spouse can receive these benefits as long as the marriage lasted ten years, you are not remarried, and your ex-spouse is receiving benefits. If the divorce occurred more than two years prior, then you can go ahead and claim spousal benefits as long as your ex-spouse is eligible to apply for benefits. They do not necessarily have to be receiving benefits already.
Can my wife claim spousal benefits before I retire?
No, if you are currently married, then you must be receiving Social Security retirement benefits before your wife can apply for spousal benefits. You can no longer apply for benefits and suspend your benefits to a later time, thus allowing your wife to go ahead and apply for spousal benefits. If you were to die, then your wife would be eligible for survivor benefits whether or not you reached retirement age. As long as you accrued ten years’ worth of work credits, then your wife would be able to claim survivor benefits upon reaching age 60.
What is the difference between spousal benefits and survivor benefits?
Spousal benefits are paid to the spouse or ex-spouse of a primary beneficiary who is still living. These benefits can be up to 50% of the primary insurance amount if the spouse waits until full retirement age to start the spousal benefits. Survivor benefits, on the other hand, are paid to the widow or widower of a primary beneficiary. An ex-spouse can also receive survivor benefits based on the earnings record of the deceased ex-spouse. These benefits can be up to 100% of the primary insurance amount. If you are receiving spousal benefits and your spouse dies, then you will need to contact the Social Security Administration to switch over to survivor benefits. This does not happen automatically, and the increase in benefits is usually not retroactive. Promptly notifying SSA of the death will ensure that you receive the higher benefit amount as quickly as possible.
What is the maximum amount of spousal benefits a spouse can receive?
The maximum amount of spousal benefits a spouse can receive is 50% of the primary beneficiary’s primary insurance amount. This assumes that the spouse waits until full retirement age to claim his or her spousal benefits. Starting benefits early at age 62 will result in a reduction of benefits. In 2022, the maximum Social Security retirement benefit at full retirement age is $3,345. This means that the most you could receive in spousal benefits would be $1,672.50. Waiting past full retirement age will not increase the amount of your spousal benefits, so there is no real advantage to waiting past FRA to start your spousal benefits.
What are the benefits of claiming spousal benefits?
One of the biggest benefits of claiming spousal benefits is the fact that you can receive Social Security retirement income even if you do not have enough work credits to qualify for benefits on your own. This means that even if you never worked, you can receive benefits based on the work history of your spouse. This can provide a tremendous financial benefit to married couples during retirement. Even if you qualify for your own benefits, spousal benefits might provide a higher payment amount if you earned a low income or only worked part-time during your working years.