Understanding Social Security Spousal Benefits

Social Security Benefits claim form
If you’re married, divorced, or the surviving spouse of a Social Security retirement beneficiary, you may want to understand more about Social Security spousal benefits. Financial experts have written extensively about how to maximize Social Security retirement benefits.
After Congress’s decision to close loopholes available to couples in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 [BBA], more current and future retirees have questions about Social Security spousal benefits and/or survivor’s benefits than ever.Learn more about Social Security spousal benefits at SSA.gov.
Let’s take a look at the basics of Social Security spousal benefits.

Claiming Social Security Spousal Benefits

After the passage of BBA, you may now elect to claim the spouse’s retirement benefit or delay the claim of your individual retirement benefits until later if you were born prior to Jan. 2, 1954 and you’re at Social Security Full Retirement Age (FRA). If you were born on Jan. 2, 1954 or a later date, your ability to claim just one benefit at FRA is now rescinded by BBA. If you belong to a certain group that doesn’t prevent your ability to make a restricted Social Security claim of benefits, you must now apply for any and all retirement/spousal benefits:

  • If you file for spousal benefits before reaching your FRA, these benefits are reduced.
  • If you haven’t reached your FRA—let’s say it’s 66 years and you’re now 62—you’re able to receive 35 percent of the primary beneficiary’s unreduced benefit at that age.
  • You can claim up to 50 percent of the maximum benefit at FRA.

Spousal Benefits before Social Security Full Retirement Age

If your spouse is the higher earner but hasn’t reached Social Security FRA, you can claim spousal benefits at a reduced rate:

  • For instance, if you spouse already claimed Social Security retirement benefits and your individual full retirement benefits are less than half of your spouse’s higher full benefit, you can claim spousal benefits even if your spouse isn’t yet at full retirement age.

SSA calculates the reduced based upon the age at which you claim spousal benefits.

  • If you’ve ever wondered if a lower earner spouse can collect on his or her higher earner spouse’s Social Security account at age 62, and claim her own Social Security retirement benefits at full retirement age, the answer is no.
  • If Spouse A chooses early retirement at age 62 on her own Social Security record (and collects a reduced Social Security retirement benefit), and Spouse B retires at age 66 (at Social Security Full Retirement Age for his birth year) and collects full Social Security benefits, it’s important to know that Social Security pays the individual beneficiary’s own benefits first before the spousal benefit. In this scenario, Spouse A won’t receive Spouse B’s full retirement benefits rate because her individual benefits level is established. It’s lower because she claimed early retirement. However, SSA will add spousal benefits to Spouse A’s individual benefits to provide a higher overall retirement benefit amount.

Social Security Spousal Benefits, Medicare, and the Earnings Test

Even if a spouse hasn’t worked full-time for most of his or her working years, he or she is eligible for Medicare benefits at age 65 through the spouse’s employment record:

  • He or she can receive Part A Medicare hospitalization benefits and no cost and pay for Part B medical insurance coverage.
  • A non-working spouse or a spouse who worked part-time could receive 50 percent of the high earner’s spouse’s Social Security retirement benefit at his or her Social Security FRA.

If the spouse’s individual Social Security retirement benefit is less than half of the higher earner’s retirement benefit, he or she might be eligible for Social Security spousal benefits on the high earner’s Social security record (as long as the high earner spouse has already claimed Social Security retirement benefits:

  • If the lower earning spouse continues to work and he or she hasn’t reached FRA, Social Security retirement benefits are subject to the “Earnings Test.” (ET)
  • The Earnings Test is also used to withhold retirement benefits from beneficiaries who claimed before reaching FRA but still earn some income.
  • Many people consider the ET as a kind of tax, but it’s important to know that any benefits withheld are added to the retirement benefit after reaching FRA.

Social Security Spousal Benefits and Retirement Benefit Strategies

Financial experts say that married people should still consider when to claim, delay, or request early retirement benefits from Social Security:

  • In many cases, the high earner’s decision to delay claiming Social Security retirement benefits could make sense. He or she earns additional credits for delaying the request of retirement benefits up to age 70.
  • Claiming early retirement may be an expensive choice in the long run. Early retirees lose up to 8 percent per year before reaching FRA.

Social Security Spousal or Survivor’s Benefits after Divorce

It may be possible to claim Social Security spousal or survivor’s benefits from a divorced husband or wife’s Social Security record. The divorced spouse must be single, at least 62, and previously married to the former spouse for at least a decade. Social Security rules say the divorce should have occurred at least two years prior to the request:

  • If the ex-spouse marries again, he or she loses the option to file for a former spouse’s Social Security benefits.
  • After remarriage, a spouse can’t claim Social Security benefits of the new spouse’s Social Security earnings record for at least one year after the wedding date.
  • Of course, the claimant can’t already earn greater Social Security benefits on his or her individual record.

SSA doesn’t let a former spouse know when his or her ex-husband or wife asks about or claims spousal benefits. Social Security requires the claimant to prove the existence and duration of the marriage. Bring certified birth certificates, certified marriage certificate, original citizenship documents, W-2 tax forms, or final divorce decree to support a request for Social Security spousal or survivor’s benefits. [If applying for Medicare, the same eligibility rules apply.