Rules That Clear Up Confusion Over Spousal Benefits

Social Security rules are different for a spouse versus ex-spouse

Woman looking at her Social Security benefit statement.
It pays to know the rules when it comes to Social Security spousal benefits. GlobalStock/E+/GettyImages

Social Security spousal benefits are confusing, and they are the most common thing readers email me to ask about.

The most frequent cause for confusion seems to come from one small difference between benefits for a spouse versus an ex-spouse. Additional confusion comes from trying to decipher what happens with spousal benefits if you claim before versus after full retirement age (FRA).

Most of the time the confusion can be cleared up by understanding the following three rules that affect spousal benefits.

1. Spousal benefits for spouses verses ex-spouses

  • To be eligible for a spousal benefit, your spouse must have filed for their own benefits.
  • This rule that your spouse must have filed for benefits does NOT apply to ex-spouses.

This difference between spousal benefits for a current versus ex-spouse is often where the confusion comes in.

To claim a spousal benefit based on an ex-spouse's earnings record, your ex-spouse has to be 62 and eligible for benefits, but there is no requirement that they must have already filed for benefits.

To claim a spousal benefit based on your current spouse's earnings record, you current spouse must have filed for their own benefits already.

There used to be a strategy for married couples called "file and suspend" where one spouse would file but immediately suspend their benefits which allowed the other spouse to file for spousal benefits. However this strategy is no longer available.

 Due to new Social Security laws that were passed in November 2015 anyone who suspends benefits after April 30th, 2016, will end up suspending all benefits based on their record - which means a spouse cannot collect spousal benefits during a time where their spouse has "suspended" benefits.

Bottom line: if you are still married your spouse must file for you to be eligible for a spousal benefit.

If you have an ex-spouse, you were married over ten years, have been divorced for two years, your ex is 62 and eligible for their own benefits, then they are not required to file for you to be eligible for a spousal benefit.

2. Deemed Filing Rules

When you file for your Social Security retirement benefits you are deemed to be filing for both your own benefit and a spousal benefit, and you will be given the higher of the two.

If you were born on or before January 1, 1954 and you are FRA or older, you can specify on your application that it is a restricted application and then you can choose to claim either your own benefit or a spousal benefit. 

Widows and widowers can use a restricted application at any time age 60 or older, but if you are not a widow or widower you can only restrict your application if:

  • You are FRA or older.
  • You were born on or before January 1, 1954 (this rule went into effect Nov. 2, 2015).

Prior to reaching your FRA, you cannot use a restricted application to designate that you wish to file only for a spousal benefit.

If you were born on or before 1/1/1954 once you reach your FRA you can use a restricted application to restrict the scope of your application to spousal benefits only, allowing you to later switch to your own benefit amount.

If you were born on or after 1/2/1954 when you file for benefits you will be deemed to be filing for all benefits you are eligible for. If your spouse has already filed, you will automatically receive the larger of your own or the spousal benefit. 

If your spouse has not filed yet but you have, when your spouse files, the deemed filing rules come into play. At that time you will be eligible for a spousal benefit and if it is more than what you are currently getting Social Security will automatically pay you the extra amount each month.

The confusion comes in when you have a younger spouse (let's say 62) who has filed, and an older spouse (let's say 65) who has not filed yet.

Suppose the younger spouse files at 62. As the older spouse has not filed yet, spousal benefits are not available yet so the younger spouse gets his/her own benefit amount.

When the older spouse files for benefits the younger spouse will become eligible for a spousal benefit, but because the younger spouse filed early (before they reached their FRA the benefit calculation to determine the amount of spousal benefit they will receive is a little different. I've heard it called both an "excess spousal" benefit and a "supplemental spousal" benefit. This calculation is explained below.

3. Excess Spousal or Supplemental Spousal Benefit

Normally a spousal benefit is 50% of the spouse's FRA benefit amount, reduced if the spouse claiming the spousal is filing for benefits early. If one spouse is already receiving their own benefits, and later becomes eligible for a spousal benefit, there is a formula that is used to determine what amount of spousal benefit (if any) they may receive.

Let's work through it expanding upon our example above. The younger spouse claimed at 62. Her primary insurance amount (PIA) was $800, but because she claimed early she received $600 per month in benefits. ($800/.75 represents the reduction she receives for claiming before her FRA.) The older spouse will claim when he turns 66. His PIA is $2,100.

Take the older spouse's PIA divided by 2, minus the younger spouse's PIA. $2,100/2 = $1,050 - $800 = $250.

When her husband files for benefits and she becomes eligible for a spousal, that $250 gets added to what she is currently receiving so her monthly benefit will go from $600 to $850 at that time.

If she had waited until her own FRA to file benefits, she would have received the full spousal benefit of $1,050, as that would have been higher than her own FRA benefit amount of $800. Of course she would have had to forego the first four years of benefits in order to then receive the higher amount. In this particular case, it likely made sense for her to file early.