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 that 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 especially important to understand how a spouse benefit is affected when taking 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 they 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.

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 first 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 the spousal benefit, 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, and delay receiving your retirement benefits until a later date, allowing you to receive a higher benefit later based on the effect of delayed retirement credits. 

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. To see how this reduction is calculated visit the Benefits For Spouses section of the Social Security website.

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. When you are a widow or widower

If you are 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 expectancy.

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 income.

Continue Reading...