When planning retirement, people often hesitate to include Social Security benefits as part of their plan. However, as a potentially significant portion of your retirement income, it’s important to consider.
If you’re married and your spouse has never worked, your combined benefits could be up to 50% higher than the benefits you’d receive on your own.
With that in mind, we’ll take a look at the qualifications for receiving social security spousal benefits and the strategies for maximizing them. We’ll also take a look at the calculations and application processes along with some special considerations and benefits.
This article was submitted by Jorge Sanchez, M.D.
Who Is Eligible for Spousal Benefits?
While one might assume any spouse is eligible, being married doesn’t guarantee that your spouse can claim benefits, and being divorced doesn’t guarantee that your ex-spouse can’t claim benefits based on your earnings records.
Eligibility and Qualification for Spousal Benefits
If you are receiving Social Security benefits, some of your family members may also be eligible for Social Security benefits. Family members – including your current spouse, ex-spouse, or children – can receive up to 50% of your benefit based on your earnings record.
Children are eligible if they are your biological, adopted, or stepchildren. They also must be living in your home, under 18 (or 19 if still enrolled in high school), and unmarried. If you have a dependent grandchild who meets these criteria, they would also be eligible for benefits.
The maximum benefit your entire family can receive based on your earnings records is 180% of your Social Security benefits. Note that benefits received by an ex-spouse don’t apply to this limit.
For your spouse to receive benefits based on your earnings, you must meet the following criteria:
- You must be receiving Social Security benefits.
- Your spouse must be at least 62 years old.
- You must have been married for at least a year.
If you have been married for less than a year, but you and your spouse have a child together, they are not subject to the one-year waiting period for claiming spousal benefits.
If your spouse has their own earnings that would provide them with a higher benefit, they will receive Social Security benefits based on their earnings instead of yours. Note, a spouse who elects to receive benefits before their full retirement age will receive a reduced benefit. Full retirement age changes based on your year of birth. See the table below to see how it changes.
|Year of Birth||Full-Retirement Age|
|1955||66 and 2 months|
|1956||66 and 4 months|
|1957||66 and 6 months|
|1958||66 and 8 months|
|1959||66 and 10 months|
|1960 and later||67|
How Does Divorce Affect Social Security Benefits?
If you are divorced, your ex-spouse may be able to claim benefits based on your earnings records even if you have remarried and your current spouse is claiming benefits based on your record.
There are several criteria that an ex-spouse must meet to claim benefits based on their earnings:
- Marriage length: You and your ex-spouse must have been married for at least 10 years for them to use your earnings record.
- Age: Your ex-spouse must be at least 62 years old to claim benefits.
- Eligibility: You must be eligible for Social Security benefits for your ex-spouse to claim benefits based on your records.
- Earnings Record: 50% of your benefit must be greater than the benefit that your ex-spouse would receive based on their own earnings
It’s important to remember that you can have multiple ex-spouses that meet the above criteria and are eligible to claim benefits based on your earnings records. Having multiple eligible ex-spouses does not change the benefits available to you or your ex-spouses.
If you were married for 10 or more years, your ex-spouse may also be eligible for survivor benefits.
How to Maximize Social Security Benefits
If you currently receive spousal benefits and have reached your full retirement age, you can switch to your Social Security benefits. You can claim spousal benefits while building up delayed retirement credits on your account. To maximize your benefits:
- Know your full retirement age (see the table above).
- Decide when to switch to your benefits. You can switch any time between your full retirement age and age 70.
- Contact the Social Security Administration (SSA) to make the change. This change will NOT occur automatically.
- Inform the SSA that you currently receive spousal benefits but want to change to your own benefit.
- Understand that the change will not be made retroactively, so you must time your request based on when you want it to occur.
Restricted Application Loophole
The restricted application loophole was closed in 2015, so most retirees are no longer eligible for this strategy. The restricted application allowed you to choose which benefits you were applying for when you submitted your initial application, meaning you could apply for spousal benefits while continuing to delay your benefits.
This strategy allowed you and your spouse to continue receiving delayed retirement credits while receiving Social Security benefits.
Example: Let’s say you become eligible for Social Security benefits amounting to $3,000 when you reach your full retirement age. Additionally, based on your spouse’s earnings, you can benefit $1,250. Here’s where the restricted application loophole comes into play: your spouse can opt for a restricted application, which allows them to suspend their own benefits temporarily while enabling you to claim spousal benefits.
From the moment you start receiving benefits, you would receive $1,250 per month until you reach the age of 70. At that point, you have the option to switch to your own benefits. It’s important to note that your benefits would have grown by 8% each year. Consequently, upon turning 70, your monthly benefits would amount to $4,081. In the meantime, by age 70, you would have already collected $60,000 in total ($1,250 multiplied by 48 months).
Voluntary Suspension Strategy
The voluntary suspension strategy is a strategy for increasing your Social Security benefits.
This works if you have already started receiving Social Security benefits. If you decide to go back to work and no longer need the income, you can suspend your benefits once you achieve your full retirement age.
Once your benefits are suspended, you will start earning the delay retirement credits and increase your benefits by 8% for each year up to age 70. Your benefits will be suspended the month after you make the request and will automatically restart when you turn 70.
If you change your mind, the option to suspend your benefits can also be undone by asking the Social Security Administration to restart your benefits before age 70.
Calculation of Spousal Social Security Benefits
Your spousal benefits are based on your spouse’s highest 35 years of earnings (up to the maximum of Social Security wages) each year. For 2023, the average indexed monthly earnings (AIME) over those 35 years are used in the following formula to calculate your benefit:
- 90% of the first $1,115 of AIME
- 32% of the next $5,606 of AIME
- 15% of any AIME over $6,721
The spousal benefit will be 50% of the above-calculated Social Security benefit if your spouse has reached full retirement age.
If your spouse has not received full retirement age their spousal benefit is reduced for each month they retire early. Below is a breakdown of how much spousal benefits are reduced based on how early your spouse is retiring.
- Spouses retiring between 1 month and 36 months early, their spousal benefit is reduced by 25/35 of one percent for each month before their full retirement age.
- For Spouses retiring more than 36 months before their full retirement age, their spousal benefit is reduced by 5/12 of one percent per month for each month over 36 months.
Mike Piper from Obvious Investor has created a free tool to evalute different scenarios.
Let’s look at a few examples of how spousal benefits work.
Scenario 1: Spouse Has Never Worked Outside the Home
John has worked for 35 years and is now eligible for Social Security retirement benefits. His wife, Jane, has never worked outside the home, so she doesn’t have a Social Security earnings record of her own. However, Jane can still receive spousal benefits based on John’s work record.
Once John starts receiving his retirement benefits, Jane can apply for spousal benefits. Assuming she has reached her full retirement age, Jane is eligible to receive a benefit equal to 50% of John’s full retirement benefit amount.
If Jane has not reached full retirement age, her 50% spousal benefit will be reduced for each month she is retiring early. For example, Jane is retiring eight months before her full retirement age. Based on her retirement age her spousal benefit would be 44.5% due to the 5.5% reduction of retiring early.
Scenario 2: Spouse Has Lower Lifetime Earnings
Susan and Mark are both 66 and have reached their full retirement age. Mark files for his retirement benefits which are based on his high lifetime earnings. Susan also worked, but her earnings were much lower over her career. As a result, her own retirement benefit would be less than 50% of Mark’s retirement benefit.
In this scenario, Susan can apply for spousal benefits based on Mark’s record. She will first receive her own retirement benefit, and then an additional amount will be added to reach the spousal benefit level, which is 50% of Mark’s full retirement benefit.
Mark’s retirement benefit is $1,500 per month. Susan’s spousal benefit would be $750 or 50% of markets benefit. Susan’s own retirement benefit is $350. To reach her full spousal benefit of $750, she would receive a supplemental spousal benefit of $400.
Scenario 3: Spouse is Older and Delays Own Benefit (For People Born Before Jan 2, 1954)
Emily is 68 and her husband, Mike, is 62. Emily has been the higher earner and is eligible for a large retirement benefit if she files for Social Security. However, Emily wants to wait until she’s 70 to file to maximize her benefits. Mike, on the other hand, decides to retire and start his Social Security benefits at 62.
In this situation, even though Emily hasn’t filed for her benefits yet, she can still file a “restricted application” for spousal benefits only, based on Mike’s work record. Emily can receive these spousal benefits until she turns 70, at which point she can switch to her own maximized retirement benefits.
*This scenario only applies to people born before Jan 2, 1954.
Application Process for Social Security Benefits
Before applying for spousal benefits, you’ll want to consider the best timing of your benefits based on your financial situation, health, and life expectancy. If you’re currently married, you should consider both your potential benefits and your spouse’s when figuring out the ideal timing.
Physician’s on Fire has a Social Security benefits calculator to make that caluclation much simpler. Just enter your lifetime earnings and you’ll get an estimate of your benefit. To apply for spousal Social Security benefits, you need to do the following:
- Verify your eligibility: Ensure that you meet the criteria we discussed above.
- Gather necessary information: You’ll need to have your SSN, your spouse’s SSN, your marriage certificate, and the dates of any previous marriages.
- Fill out the application: You can apply for spousal benefits online, in person, or over the phone.
Seeking Expert Advice
It’s important to consult with the Social Security Administration when navigating the complexities of Social Security benefits, including spousal benefits. Everyone’s situation is unique, and a strategy that works well for one person might not be the best for another.
The SSA can provide you with specific information about your benefit options, including the potential benefits you could receive based on your own work record compared to those based on spousal benefits. They can also guide you through the application process, ensuring that you have all the necessary documentation and understand all the rules and regulations that apply to your situation.
You can reach the Social Security Administration by visiting your local office or calling them at 1-800-772-1213.
Every couple of years, a new date is projected for when the Social Security trust fund will run out of money, and each projected date is closer than the previous one. But even if the trust fund were to run out of reserves, Social Security would still receive money from payroll taxes each year.
So, while it’s possible that benefits may be cut at some point in the future, it’s unlikely that Social Security benefits will disappear entirely.
To further fund Social Security benefits, the Social Security tax rate could be increased, the maximum Social Security wages could be increased, or the full retirement age could be raised again.
When planning for retirement, it is advisable to use conservative estimates for your anticipated Social Security benefits. Even if it seems unlikely, you should expect and plan to receive at least some benefits in the future.
Social Security is an important part of most people’s retirement income. Knowing how to maximize your benefits and your spouse’s can provide additional assurance of income throughout your retirement years.
When can my spouse collect half of my Social Security?
Your spouse can collect half of their spousal benefits once they reach their full retirement age and you have started receiving benefits. The exact percentage reduction will depend on how early your spouse is retiring compared to their full retirement age.
According to SSA.gov, if your spouse is retiring between 1 month and 36 months early, their spousal benefit is reduced by 25/35 of one percent for each month before their full retirement age. If your spouse is retiring more than 36 months before their full retirement age, their spousal benefit is reduced by 5/12 of one percent per month for each month over 36 months.
SSA.gov has a calculator to help you determine the exact percentage impact on your spouse’s benefits if they retire early. To use the calculator, you only need your spouse’s desired retirement age and date of birth. that will help you determine the exact percentage impact on your spouse’s benefits if they retire early.
Which spouse gets Social Security?
Your current spouse will receive spousal benefits if you are currently claiming Social Security benefits and you have been married for at least a year.
Your ex-spouse(s) can receive benefits based on your earnings if
- You have reached full retirement age
- Your ex-spouse is at least 62 years old
- You were married for at least 10 years
If your ex-spouse claims spousal benefits based on your earnings record, it does not affect your benefits.
How do I switch from spousal benefits to my own Social Security?
You can request to switch from spousal benefits to your own Social Security at any time by contacting the Social Security Administration by phone or in person.
How can I maximize my Social Security benefits?
The best way to maximize your monthly benefits is to wait until age 70 to apply to restart Social Security. However, before you maximize your lifetime Social Security income, you’ll need to evaluate your life expectancy to determine if claiming Social Security earlier may be more beneficial to you.
You’ll also want to consider your spouse’s income (and ex-spouse’s income) to determine if you can claim spousal benefits while delaying claiming your own benefits.