Understand how Social Security spousal benefits work to make the most of your retirement funds.
Getting a solid grasp of eligibility requirements and the best time to claim Social Security can help you maximize your spousal benefits. (GETTY IMAGES)
If you are or were married in the past, you may be eligible to apply for spousal Social Security benefits. “Spousal benefits are often underutilized,” says Ken Moraif, a certified financial planner at Retirement Planners of America in Plano, Texas. The exact amount you receive will be determined by factors including your age, work history and marital status.
You can expect the following when applying for Social Security spousal benefits:
- You can receive up to 50% of your spouse’s Social Security benefit.
- You can apply for benefits if you have been married for at least one year.
- If you have been divorced for at least two years, you can apply if the marriage lasted 10 or more years.
- Starting benefits early may lead to a reduction in payments.
- If you have a work history, you’ll receive either your benefit or the spousal benefit, whichever is greater.
- To be eligible, your working spouse will need to have already claimed benefits.
To make the most of your spousal Social Security benefit, it can be helpful to be aware of the amount you might be eligible for, as well as how the timing of your claim can impact how much you receive.
Social Security Spousal Benefits Eligibility
You should be married for at least one year before applying for Social Security benefits. “You are eligible for spousal benefits if your spouse has filed for Social Security benefits and you are at least age 62,” Moraif says.
If you have a work history, you may be eligible for a personal benefit. In this situation, you can receive your own personal benefit if it is greater than the spousal benefit. If you are eligible for $1,000 as a personal benefit and $500 for a spousal benefit, Social Security will send you the higher amount of $1,000.
How Much to Expect for Spousal Social Security Benefits
Your spousal benefit will be 50% of your spouse’s benefit if you start payments at full retirement age or older. The full retirement age varies by birth year and is usually age 66 or 67. If you are married and your spouse begins collecting $2,000 per month at full retirement age, your spousal benefit will be $1,000 if you start payments at your full retirement age.
When to Claim Social Security Spousal Payments
If you decide to begin collecting spousal benefits before your full retirement age, you can expect to receive a lower amount. If your full retirement age is 66 and you begin to receive spousal benefits at age 62, you will receive 30% of your spouse’s monthly benefit. If you claim spousal benefits at age 65, you will receive slightly less than 50% of your spouse’s monthly benefit, depending on the exact month you start collecting payments.
Depending on your circumstance, you may be eligible to receive spousal benefits early without reductions. “If you are caring for a spouse’s child who is under age 16 and receives Social Security, you can collect spousal benefits early without the reduction in spousal benefits,” says Josh Trubow, a certified financial planner at Sensible Financial Planning in Waltham, Massachusetts. You will still need to be married for at least one year before applying for benefits.
Spousal benefits differ from personal benefits when it comes to delaying payments. If you delay personal benefits past full retirement age, the benefit increases over time. However, spousal benefits max out at full retirement age. There is no benefit to delaying your spousal benefit claim past your full retirement age.
Divorce and Social Security Spousal Benefits
If you are divorced, you must have been married for at least 10 years to be eligible for a spousal benefit through your ex-spouse. In addition, you’ll need to have been divorced for at least two years and be currently unmarried. “Both you and your ex-spouse must be at least 62,” says Ben Barzideh, a wealth advisor at Piershale Financial Group in Barrington, Illinois.
If you marry someone else after getting a divorce, you will not be eligible to receive spousal benefits through your ex-spouse. You will instead be eligible for spousal benefits based on your new spouse’s work record.
In the event that your second marriage ends in divorce, you can choose to receive whichever spousal benefit is highest, provided the other requirements are met and both marriages lasted at least 10 years. “If your second marriage didn’t last 10 years, you’ll still be eligible to collect benefits on your first spouse’s record,” Barzideh says.
What Happens to Social Security Spousal Payments if a Spouse Passes Away
Your benefits could be impacted by certain events, including the death of your spouse. You may be eligible to receive a Social Security survivor benefit equal to the full benefit your spouse was receiving. “If you are married and your spouse passes away, the surviving spouse will keep the higher of the two Social Security payments,” says Steve Sexton, CEO of Sexton Advisory Group in Temecula, California. If you got divorced and your ex-spouse passed away, you can still claim survivor benefits if you are 60 or older. To be eligible, the marriage will need to have lasted for at least 10 years.
If your spouse passes away and you get remarried, the benefits could change. “The important thing to remember in receiving survivor benefits is that if you remarry before age 60, this will cut off your eligibility to collect on your deceased spouse’s or deceased ex-spouse’s record,” Barzideh says. “This could be a very expensive decision, because while a spousal benefit entitles you to 50% of the other spouse’s benefits, a survivor benefit would entitle you to 100% of those benefits.”
If you get married at age 60 or older, you will still be able to collect the survivor benefits from your deceased spouse or deceased ex-spouse’s record. You could choose to let your own benefit grow until age 70. “If, at that time, your own benefit is larger than the survivor benefit, you can switch over to your own benefit at 70,” Barzideh says.
Rachel Hartman, Contributor | US News