How the The Social Security Spouse Benefit Works

The who, how much, and when of Social Security spousal benefits.

Older couple sitting on the edge of a dock, happy they found out about spousal benefits.
Spousal benefits can provide extra income in retirement. Jon Feingersh/Blend Images/Getty Images

A Social Security spouse benefit is called a “spousal benefit”. It applies to:

  • Current spouses
  • Widowed spouses
  • Ex-spouses

It is important to understand how your spouse's benefit may be affected if you take Social Security benefits early, and what happens upon the death of a spouse. I've spelled out what you need to know in four sections below.

1. Who is Eligible for a Spousal Benefit?

Both current spouses, and ex-spouses if you were married for over ten years and did not remarry prior to age 60, are eligible for a spousal benefit.

You must be age 62 to file for or receive a spousal benefit.

You are not eligible to receive a spousal benefit until your spouse files for their own benefit first. Different rules apply for ex-spouses. You can receive a spousal benefit based on an ex-spouse's record even if your ex has not yet filed for their own benefits, however your ex must be age 62 or older.

Note: If you take a spousal benefit it does not reduce or change the amount your current spouse, ex-spouse, or ex-spouse's current spouse may receive.

2. How Much Can You Get?

As a spouse, you can claim a Social Security benefit based on your own earnings record, or you can collect a spousal benefit that will provide you 50% of the amount of your spouse’s Social Security benefit as calculated at their full retirement age (FRA). (Each person's FRA depends on their year of birth.) 

If you file before you reach your own FRA, your spousal benefit will be calculated as 50% of what your spouse would get at their FRA, but then it will be further reduced because you are filing early.

You are automatically entitled to receive the benefit that provides you the higher monthly amount; either a benefit based on your own earnings, or a spousal benefit based on your spouse's or ex-spouse's earnings, and prior to reaching FRA, Social Security makes this determination for you.

If you were born on or before January 1, 1954, after you reach FRA, you can choose to receive only the spousal benefit by filing a restricted application.

By doing this you delay receiving your retirement benefits based on your earning's record until a later date. For example, at age 70 you could switch from receiving a spousal benefit to receiving your own potentially higher benefit amount.

Due to new Social Security laws that went into effect Nov. 2, 2015, if you were born on or after January 2, 1954 you will not be able to restrict your application and only receive spousal benefits. For anyone born on or after January 2, 1954, when you file you will automatically be deemed to be filing for all benefits you are eligible for. 

3. How Early Retirement Affects Things

If you collect a spousal benefit, and you begin collecting this benefit before you reach FRA, your benefit will be permanently reduced. If you collect any type of benefit before your FRA, and you continue to work and receive earned income, you may owe some of your Social Security benefits back. Once you reach FRA you can collect Social Security and earn any amount from working without be subject to any reduction in benefits or penalty.

If your spouse takes Social Security early, and you take a spousal benefit early, you will be significantly reducing the amount of benefits that may be paid out over your lifetime and will have permanently reduced the survivor benefit that either of you is eligible for.

Married couples can get more in Social Security payments by coordinating how and when they should each begin collecting benefits. You can run these numbers yourself to see how it works by using an advanced Social Security calculator.

4. If You Become a Widow or Widower

If you become a widow or widower you can collect a survivor’s benefit as early as age 60. 

Widows and widowers can restrict their application to file for either their own benefit or the widow/widower benefit, and then later switch to the other benefit amount. You might do this if your own benefit amount at age 70 would be larger than your widow benefit. You could claim the widow benefit for several years, and then at 70 switch to your own benefit.

Once you and your spouse are receiving Social Security benefits, upon the death of your spouse, you will continue to receive the larger of your benefit, or your spouse’s, but not both. This means if you have a longer life expectancy, and you are collecting a benefit based on your spouse’s earnings, if your spouse starts taking Social Security early, it will result in a significant reduction in your benefit too, and the reduction will last throughout your life.

A surviving spouse living in the same household is eligible to receive a one-time lump sum payment of $255 upon the death of their spouse.

When married couples choose to maximize the highest earning spouse’s benefit by having that person delay collecting until age 70, it acts as a powerful form of life insurance. In many cases it provides the equivalent of $50,000 - $250,000 of life insurance benefit.

Overall, married couples in particular, can make better Social Security choices by working together and making decisions that maximize their spousal and survivor benefits. Too many couples overlook this, and end up getting less lifetime income.

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