Social Security Spousal Benefits Explained

Image shows an older, interracial heterosexual couple. Text reads: "Qualifications for social security spousal benefit: current and ex-spouses are both eligible. You must be age 62 to file for or receive a spousal benefit. Spouse must file for own benefits first. Taking a spousal benefit does not reduce or change the amount spouse may receive."
Image by Theresa Chiechi © The Balance 2019

When someone dies, their Social Security benefits may become available to their current or former spouse, depending on certain circumstances. But even if there’s no death, you can collect a Social Security spousal benefit equal to half of what your spouse gets, if that’s higher than what you’d get on your own. Here’s what you need to know. 

Eligibility for a Spousal Benefit

Current spouses and ex-spouses (if you were married for over 10 years and have not remarried) both have eligibility for the spousal benefit. 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.

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.

Taking a spousal benefit does not reduce or change the amount your current spouse, ex-spouse, or ex-spouse's current spouse may receive.

How Much You Get

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 percent of the amount of your spouse’s Social Security benefit as calculated at their full retirement age, or FRA. (Check the Social Security website to determine your FRA, as it depends on your year of birth.) Social Security calculates 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.

How Early Retirement Affects Benefits

Just as anyone loses part of their own benefit if they retire early, if you begin collecting a spousal benefit before you reach your FRA, your benefit will be permanently lower unless you’re caring for a qualifying child. Depending on how early you retire, it will be reduced by as much as 35%. You can get exact percentages by plugging in various early retirement ages on the Social Security Administration’s website.

Your spousal benefits won't be reduced if you're caring for a child who is under 16 or who receives Social Security disability benefits.

If your spouse and/or you are considering taking Social Security benefits early, consider the long-term effects carefully. You will be significantly reducing the benefits that may be paid out over your lifetime and will have permanently reduced the survivor benefit for which either of you is eligible.

Married couples should coordinate 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.

If You Become a Widow or Widower

If your spouse dies, you can collect a survivor’s benefit as early as age 60. You’re eligible for the maximum benefit—the full amount of the deceased’s benefit—if you’ve reached FRA. Before that, it’s reduced by 71.5%-99%, depending on how much over 60 you are.

Widows and widowers can restrict their application to file for either their own benefit or the survivor benefit, and then later switch to the other 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 age 70 switch to your own benefit.

If you are divorced and your ex-spouse dies, you may be eligible for the same benefits as any current spouse if your marriage lasted at least 10 years or you are caring for a qualifying child.

Once you and your spouse start receiving Social Security benefits, upon the death of your spouse, you will continue to receive your benefit, or your spouse’s, but not both. In addition, a surviving spouse living in the same household is eligible to receive a one-time lump-sum payment of $255.

Bottom Line

Workers who delay collecting Social Security until they’re 70 get more in benefits. When married couples choose to maximize the higher-earning person’s benefit by delaying, it acts as a powerful form of life insurance. In many cases, it provides the equivalent of $50,000 to $250,000 of life insurance benefit. Married couples should work together to make decisions that optimize their spousal and survivor benefits.