The Ins and Outs of Social Security Benefits for Spouses

Did you know that if you’re married (or even divorced or widowed), you may be eligible to claim Social Security benefits based on your spouse’s work record? It’s possible to receive up to 50% of your spouse’s full retirement benefit amount, which could prove helpful if your work record will not earn you as much in benefits.

Receiving the Social Security spousal benefit can help maximize your income in retirement, but, as with many aspects of Social Security, claiming this benefit is not always straightforward.

To help you understand if you are eligible for Social Security benefits for spouses and to figure out how to maximize these payments to optimize your finances in retirement, we’ve put together the following guide.

Who Can Claim Social Security Benefits for Spouses?

Over 2.4 million people claim spousal benefits, and the average monthly benefit amount for spouses of retirees is $768. You can benefit from these Social Security payments, too, if you meet certain criteria:

Spousal Benefits
Only one spouse can receive spousal benefits at a time, and you can’t claim spousal benefits while also receiving payments based on your work record. For example, if a husband claims a spousal benefit based on his wife’s work record, she must claim her Social Security payments based on her own work record.

Starting at age 62, you can begin claiming Social Security benefits for spouses if your spouse also receives Social Security or disability payments. However, claiming these benefits before the so-called “full retirement age” (which depends on when you were born) will permanently reduce your benefits, so it’s often better to wait.

You may be eligible to receive spousal benefits earlier than age 62 if you have a qualifying child in your care, which means a child who is under 16 or disabled and receiving Social Security disability payments. Once you no longer have a qualifying child in your care, such as when the child turns 16, you would need to qualify for spousal benefits based on your age.

Divorced-Spouse Benefits
Getting divorced doesn't mean automatically losing benefits based on your ex-spouse’s record. If you were married for at least 10 years, you may still be eligible to collect Social Security benefits based on the work record of your ex-spouse, provided you aren’t currently remarried and are age 62 or older.

Widow/Widower Benefits
If you’re a widow or widower, you may be eligible for survivor benefits, which can mean up to 100% of your deceased spouse’s benefit if you wait until full retirement age. Generally, to qualify for survivor benefits, you must be age 60 or older (age 50 or older if disabled) or caring for the deceased’s child if they are under 16 or disabled—though there are more specific criteria that you should be aware of.

If your ex-husband or ex-wife has died, you may be eligible under similar criteria if you were married for at least 10 years.

Getting remarried after age 60 does not affect eligibility for survivor benefits.

How to Maximize Social Security Benefits for Spouses

If you and your spouse both have long work records in high-earning careers, it may make the most sense for each of you to claim your individual benefits. However, if there are large disparities—say, one spouse left the workforce to raise children—then it may make sense to claim spousal benefits.

It bears repeating that your spousal benefits could end up being less than 50% of your spouse’s full retirement benefit if you claim Social Security before your full retirement age. Even though you can receive spousal benefits at age 62, these benefits will be permanently reduced.

Delayed Retirement Credit

The rules that allow a worker to increase their benefit amount if they delay retirement up to age 70 do not apply to spousal benefits. In other words, if your spouse delays retirement until 70 and you claim benefits based on their work record, you won’t receive an increase since your benefit is based on their full retirement age of 66–67.

However, their increased Social Security payment for delaying could help your household as a whole. And if they pass before you, your survivor benefits will be more than had they signed up for Social Security at full retirement age.

To get an idea of how much you can receive from spousal benefits, use the "Benefits for Spouses" calculator on the Social Security website, or contact our fee-only financial planning to see how your Social Security benefits would incorporate into your overall retirement plan.

Finally, if you were born before January 2, 1954, you can claim spousal benefits until you reach age 70 and then apply for your own benefit. Doing so will allow you to accumulate delayed retirement credits, resulting in a higher benefit when you apply for Social Security on your work record.

However, this strategy is no longer available for those born on or after January 2, 1954, as it has been phased out along with the once-popular “file and suspend” strategy. Still, by understanding the rules and making strategic decisions, you and your spouse can make the most of your Social Security benefits.

To review your earnings history and potential benefits, sign up for a free online account with the Social Security Administration.