Understanding Social Security Spousal Benefits

09 October 2018

A retired couple walks barefoot along the shore

The majority of retirees will qualify for Social Security benefits. However, the payments received will vary depending on when and how you file for benefits. Spousal benefits are one route, which requires careful consideration because it can impact the amount of income you receive from Social Security over your lifetime.

Spouses can claim benefits based on your work record, or you could potentially receive a higher payout when you file a claim against your spouses or ex-spouses Social Security benefit.

Here is what you need to know:

Who Can Qualify for Spousal Benefits?

There are three primary reasons you would collect spousal benefits: If you do not qualify for Social Security on your own record (or make substantially less than your spouse), you want to collect from a divorced spouse, or you are a surviving spouse. The Social Security Administration has different qualifications based on the circumstances.

Lower Personal Social Security Benefit

Workers who do not fulfill the credit requirement for Social Security can claim under the spousal benefit when you reach retirement age. Claiming before your full retirement age will result in a lower payout, just as it does on your own work record. However, there is no additional benefit to waiting beyond full retirement age.

Divorced Spouses

You can claim a spousal benefit from a previous marriage provided you were married for a minimum of ten years and are at least 62 years old. If you remarry, you lose the benefits available from a previous spouse as long as you remain legally married. Your ex-spouse does not have to claim benefits for you to qualify.

Surviving Spousal Benefit

Surviving Spousal Benefit allows the surviving spouse to take the higher of the two benefits. The age you begin receiving benefits will impact the survivor spousal benefits. For example, if your spouse waited until 70 to receive the higher payout, you can receive the higher amount. You can also claim survivor benefits from a divorced spouse.

How Much Can You Receive?

In most cases, the spousal benefit is 50% of the spouse’s payout at full retirement age. The non-claiming spouse’s claim does not impact the spousal benefit. For example, if your ex-spouse claimed benefits at 62 and received a lower payment, the benefit at full retirement age would still determine your payout based on your age.

Couples with similar incomes generally will not profit from the spousal benefit.

When Do You Qualify for Spousal Benefits?

Married couples can only collect the spousal benefit when the higher earner claims the benefit. You must also be at least 62. Filing before your full retirement age will result in a smaller payout.

Divorced couples do not need to wait for the higher earner to claim the benefit, provided you qualify to receive benefits based on your age.

Strategic Filing

Couples can have the lower earner file at the full retirement age, while the higher earner delays filing until age 70. In this case, the surviving spouse would qualify for the higher benefit.

When filing for Social Security benefits, coordinating with a spouse can ensure you receive maximum benefits and get the highest possible spousal benefit for the surviving spouse.