What are Social Security Spousal Benefits?
Social Security Spousal Benefits are the benefit you can collect based on your spouse’s primary insurance amount at full retirement age. The benefit can be up to 50% of your spouse’s Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) and cannot go into effect until your spouse files for their own benefit, or until your spouse is at Full Retirement Age (FRA) or older, and filed and suspended prior to April 30, 2016.
For married couples, deciding when to start collecting Social Security benefits can be especially important. That’s because you may have a greater number of choices that will impact the benefits you and your spouse receive for life, along with survivors’ benefits.
There are some strategies that can help retirees and their spouses make the most of their Social Security benefits. Throughout this text, our use of the term “spouse” will be based on federal law.
Spousal Benefit Eligibility
- Current spouses and ex-spouses are both eligible for spousal benefits (if you were married for over 10 years and have not remarried).
- You must be age 62 to file for or receive a spousal benefit, but waiting until you are at full retirement age (up to 67, depending on when you were born) will maximize your benefit.
- Spouse must file for their own benefits first
- Taking a spousal benefit does not change or reduce the amount spouse may receive
For current spouses, you must wait until your spouse files for their own benefit. Different rules apply to ex-spouses. You can receive a spousal benefit even if your ex-spouse has not yet filed for his or her own benefits, but your ex-spouse must be age 62 or older.
Maximizing Your Social Security Spousal Benefit
For those who qualify for benefits, Social Security is a retirement income source with choices and therefore some degree of control. Optimizing your Social Security Benefit should be part of your entire retirement income planning process. Social Security is often the foundation or starting point of the retirement income analysis.
But not everyone understands how Social Security benefits work – or how to help enhance the value of these benefits. And when you add a spouse to the picture, your planning can become quite complex. Over the next 5 minutes you’ll receive a good overview of the program, qualifications, and benefits.
Full Retirement Age (FRA) varies depending on what year you were born. Use the Full Retirement Age chart below to determine your FRA.
How Much Will Your Spousal Benefit Be?
You can claim a Social Security benefit based on your own earnings record, or you can collect a spousal benefit. Spousal Benefits will provide you 50 percent of the amount of your spouse’s Social Security benefit as calculated at their full retirement age, or FRA. (Check the above table to determine your FRA, as it depends on your year of birth.) Social Security calculates your benefit amount both ways and pays the higher amount.
If you were born on or before Jan. 1, 1954, once you reach your FRA, you can choose to receive only the spousal benefit by filing a restricted application. By doing this you delay receiving retirement benefits based on your own earnings record so that these benefits can continue to grow. If you were born any later than Jan. 1, 1954, this option is no longer available.
Using this Social Security Calculator you can compute the effect of early retirement for spouses who do not have a dependent child in their care.
Two Qualifying Spouses
For qualifying spouses (both worked outside the home and thus, both qualify for Social Security benefits), there are two possibilities. The spouse with the lower primary insurance amount can either:
- Take the benefits generated by his/her own earnings history, or
- Take half of the spouse’s retirement benefit (if greater).
Keep in mind that to get a spousal benefit, the other spouse must have started collecting benefits, or have reached full retirement age and filed and suspended prior to April 30, 2016. Also, benefits for a spouse or worker are reduced if taken prior to FRA. In addition, only one spouse can collect a spousal benefit at a time.
One Qualifying Spouse and One Nonqualifying Spouse
If only one spouse worked outside the home, then the other spouse is considered a nonqualifying spouse (i.e., did not pay Social Security or Medicare taxes). A nonqualifying spouse can collect on the record of the spouse who is qualified to receive benefits. However, the nonqualifying spouse must have been married at least one year to the qualifying spouse or is married to the qualifying spouse and the parent of their child.
If a nonqualifying spouse is at FRA or later, the nonqualifying spouse receives an amount equal to 50% of the primary insurance amount of the qualifying spouse (not necessarily their benefit amount). If the non-qualifying spouse is at least age 62 but under FRA, that person may receive permanently reduced benefits. To start a spousal benefit, the qualifying spouse must have started collecting benefits or have reached FRA and fined and suspended prior to April 30, 2016.
Single or Head of Household
- Up to 50% taxable with $25,000 combined income
- Up to 85% taxable with $34,000 combined income
Married Filing Jointly
- Up to 50% taxable with $32,000 combined income
- Up to 85% taxable with $44,000 combined income
Coordination of Spousal Benefits
As a married couple, you may be able to coordinate the timing of when each spouse starts taking benefits, which may help generate a stream of benefits that’s aligned with your income needs and goals. For example, one spouse may choose to collect benefits at his/her Full Retirement Age, while the other spouse may choose to wait until age 70 to collect. Coordinating benefits with your spouse may allow you to:
- Take advantage of the annual 8% increase (delayed retirement credit) available each year that benefits are delayed past Full Retirement Age—up to age 70
- Potentially maximize total lifetime benefits paid to you and your spouse
- Provide a potentially larger survivors benefit to your spouse
How do Claiming Strategies Vary Over Time?
In addition to your monthly benefit amount, it ss also important to consider total potential benefits paid over you and your spouse’s lifetime, based on longevity. View current life expectancy tables here if you’d like to get a better idea of how long you can expect to receive benefits.
The table to the below shows the hypothetical cumulative benefits paid over time from three different filing strategies. These examples are for illustrative purposes only and are not intended to be a projection of your actual benefits.
Each strategy assumes the following: The lower-earning spouse is eligible for a monthly benefit of $1,000 at Full Retirement Age (66). The higher-earning spouse is eligible for a monthly benefit of $2, at Full Retirement Age (66). Both spouses are the same age.
Early Election Strategy: Both spouses start benefits at age 62.
- The higher-earning spouse receives a monthly benefit of $1,800 beginning at age 62.
- The lower-earning spouse receives a monthly spousal benefit of $890 beginning at age 62.
Full Retirement Age: Both spouses start benefits at age 66.
- The higher-earning spouse receives a monthly benefit of $2,400 beginning at age 66.
- The lower-earning spouse receives a monthly spousal benefit of $1,200 beginning at age 66.
Phase-In: The couple phases in their benefits between ages 62 and 70.
- The lower-earning spouse receives a monthly benefit of $750 from age 62 through age 69.
- The higher-earning spouse receives a monthly spousal benefit of $500 from age 66 through age 69.
- Beginning at age 70, the lower-earning spouse receives a monthly spousal benefit of $950 and the higher-earning spouse receives a monthly benefit of $3,168. (Note: if you were not age 62 as of 12/31/15, this strategy is not available to you.)
Surviving Spouse Benefits
If a spouse dies, Social Security provides benefits to the widow or widower. For example, if you were married for at least nine months before your spouse’s death, you would be eligible for survivor benefits.
The earliest you can start receiving benefits as a widow or widower is age 60; or age 50 if you’re disabled before or within seven years of the death; or any age if you have eligible children. However, if you start survivor benefits before your full retirement age, your survivor benefits will be reduced by a fraction of a percentage, which varies by year of birth, for each month before your FRA.
For years of birth from 1945-1956, the reduction is 0.396% per month. Survivor benefits are based on the primary insurance amount of the deceased spouse on the date of death, including delayed retirement credits.
If you receive survivor benefits and you qualify for retirement benefits that are more than your survivor benefits, you can switch from your survivor benefits to your own benefits as early as age 62.
The surviving spouse can collect either his/her own benefits or survivor benefits – but not both at the same time. When the surviving spouse is eligible for both benefits, he/she can choose to take one type of benefits first, then switch to other benefits later.
Note: If you remarry before age 60 (age 50 if disabled), you are not eligible for survivor benefits unless and until that marriage ends. If you remarry after age 60 (age 50 if disabled), you are still entitled to survivor benefits based on the work record of your deceased former spouse.
Spousal Benefits For a Divorced Spouse
If you’re divorced, it’s possible that you could receive a Social Security retirement benefit (and even survivor benefits) based on your former spouse’s work record, as long as certain rules are met:
- You must have been married for at least 10 years before you divorced.
- You must be age 62 or older.
- Your benefit may be reduced if taken before your full retirement age.
- You must be currently unmarried.
- If you did remarry but subsequently were widowed, or are again divorced, you are still eligible to collect on the former spouse’s record.
The benefit you’re entitled to receive based on your own work must be less than the benefit based on the divorce. The benefit based on the former spouse’s record is 50% of the former spouse’s PIA, reduced if you start prior to your own FRA. The amount of benefit has no effect on the other ex-spouse and his/her current spouse. If you are divorced at least two years, and if you and your ex-spouse are at least age 62, you can get benefits even if the other ex-spouse is not yet retired.
Your former spouse must be old enough (age 62) to be eligible to collect his/her benefit, even if he/she hasn’t started yet. However, if your former spouse hasn’t applied yet, you can only apply for a divorced spouse’s benefit if you have been divorced for at least two years. If eligible, both divorced spouses may receive spousal benefits, which is not an option available to a married couple, if each divorced spouse is age 62 or older in 2015 and each files restricted at FRA for a spousal benefit only.
Survivor Benefits for a Divorced Spouse
If your former spouse dies, you will be eligible for survivor benefits, provided that you were married for at least 10 years. You cannot collect until you are age 60 (age 50 if you’re disabled). The amount of survivor benefits for a divorced individual meeting the criteria is 100% of the deceased former spouse’s PIA, reduced if the surviving divorced spouse is under FRA.
If you remarry before age 60 (age 50 if disabled), you are not eligible for survivor benefits unless and until that marriage ends. If you remarry after age 60 (age 50 if disabled), you are still entitled to the survivor benefits based on the work record of your deceased former spouse.
The benefits you receive as a surviving divorced spouse do not figure into the family maximum, so if your former spouse remarried, it will not reduce benefits paid to his or her widow(er).
Of course, if your retirement benefits based on your own work record are higher than your survivor benefits based on your former spouse’s work record, you would want to receive your own retirement benefits, not the survivor benefits. However, a surviving divorced spouse has the option to start receiving survivor benefits and later switch to his/her own benefits (or vice versa).
Social Security Key Terms
Primary Insurance Amount (PIA)
The “primary insurance amount” (PIA) is the benefit (before rounding down to next lower whole dollar) a person would receive if he/she elects to begin receiving retirement benefits at his/her normal retirement age. At this age, the benefit is neither reduced for early retirement nor increased for delayed retirement.
Normal Retirement Age or Full Retirement Age (FRA):
The normal retirement age (NRA) is the age at which retirement benefits (before rounding) are equal to the “primary insurance amount.” The table below shows how NRA varies by year of birth for retirees.
Contacting Social Security
The most convenient way to contact Social Security from anywhere with any device is to visit www.socialsecurity.gov to get information and use basic services. SSA offers additional services when you create a secure online my Social Security account.
Call the Social Security Administration toll-free at 1-800-772-1213 or at 1-800-325-0778 (TTY) if you’re deaf or hard of hearing. We can answer your call from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., weekdays.
In This Social Security Spousal Benefits Guide
This content is for general informational purposes only. It is not intended to provide fiduciary, tax, or legal advice and cannot be used to avoid tax penalties; nor is it intended to market, promote, or recommend any tax plan or arrangement. My Annuity Store, Inc., their affiliates, and their employees and representatives do not give legal or tax advice or advice related to Social Security benefits.
Clients are encouraged to consult with their own legal, tax, and financial professionals for specific advice or product recommendations, or to go to their local Social Security Administration office regarding their particular situation.
SOURCES: Policy Basics:  Top Ten Facts About Social Security, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, updated August 14, 2019 Https://cbpp,org/research/social-security/policy-basics-top-ten-facts-about-social-security.  CBPP analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s March 2019 Current Population Survey.  Social Security Administration, Annual Statistical Supplement to the Social Security Bulletin, 2019, Table 5.F4, https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/statcomps/supplement/ [
4] BPP analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s March 2019 Current Population Survey.  Poverty thresholds depend on the size of the family and the ages of its members; this $25,701 figure is a weighted average for families of four. For more information, see https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/income-poverty/historical-poverty-thresholds.html.