Navigating your various retirement options may seem like quite a task. With 401(k)s, 403(b)s, Roth IRAs and many more, planning for retirement may feel more exhausting than going to your 9-5. But, what about Social Security? Fortunately, Social Security provides benefits on your own record, but also offers spousal and survivor benefits.
As with any retirement plan, there are eligibility requirements and various caveats. So, what are the Social Security spousal benefits, and what do you need to know in 2019?
What Are Social Security Spousal Benefits?
Social Security spousal benefits may be available, under certain circumstances to spouses, ex-spouses and widows and widowers.
If you have been or were married for at least 10 years, and not remarried before age 60, you may be eligible for spousal benefits from Social Security, but your spouse must file for their own benefit before you can file for spousal benefits. Additionally, other restrictions apply for ex-spouses, and regardless of your current or former marital status, you must be 62 before you can file for spousal benefits.
Requirements and Eligibility
As a baseline standard, you must be 62 years of age with a spouse who is currently receiving (or has filed for) retirement or disability benefits in order to file for or receive spousal benefits. Still, there are various other requirements for receiving the benefits.
Current, widowed and ex-spouses are eligible for Social Security spousal benefits. However, the age at which you begin taking spousal benefits will affect the amount you are able to claim. In order to receive the full amount of benefits, your working spouse must be at the full retirement age (FRA) - meaning that they are able to claim 100% of their benefits (and therefore the spouse would be able to claim 50%).
Additionally, you must be married for at least 1 year, according to AARP.
Full Retirement Age (FRA)
(Note: if your birth date falls on Jan. 1, the SSA requires you refer to the previous year, or if your birthday is on the first of the month, refer to the previous month.)
Year of Birth
Full Retirement Age
1937 or earlier
65 and 2 months
65 and 4 months
65 and 6 months
65 and 8 months
65 and 10 months
66 and 2 months
66 and 4 months
66 and 6 months
66 and 8 months
66 and 10 months
1960 and later
Source: Social Security Administration
How Much Money Can You Get?
The maximum amount of benefits you can claim is 50% of your spouse's benefit.
As of 2019, someone retiring at age 66 or 67 could potentially receive a maximum Social Security benefit of $2,861 per month. Additionally, early retirement at 62 would receive maximum monthly benefits of around $2,209, while delayed retirement at 70 would receive maximum monthly benefits of around $3,770. Given that the maximum spousal benefits you can receive are 50% of your spouse's, you would receive half the monthly benefits.
The maximum amount of benefits (or 100%) that a person may receive once they reach FRA is called the primary insurance amount (PIA) - whereby the person filing for benefits will neither have them reduced or increased for early or late claims.
However, the amount of benefits you may be eligible to receive changes based on your age and if you are claiming late or early retirement benefits. But, what are the parameters for early claims?
Claiming Late or Early
If you decide to claim your spousal benefits before or after you reach full retirement age, there are different restrictions that apply.
For example, although you can start claiming Social Security spousal benefits at 62, by claiming your spousal benefits before your FRA, your benefits will be cut "by a percentage based on the number of months up to your full retirement age," according to the Social Security Administration. So, if you decide to claim spousal benefits before you reach your own full retirement age (which, if born in 1960 or after, is 67), you will only receive a percentage of the full benefits you might otherwise receive (in other words, 50%). For example, if you began taking spousal benefits at age 62 with a full retirement age of 67, you would only receive 32.5% of your spouse's full benefits until you reached your FRA.
However, because the maximum amount you can claim of your spousal benefits is 50% of your spouse's benefits, there is no incentive to file for spousal benefits later (i.e., after you've reached your FRA). Still, because your benefits will be reduced if you file early, it may be wise to wait until you've reached your FRA (dependent on your birth date) before you file.
For this reason, it's important to understand how filing early or late could affect your benefits.
"The biggest thing that people should know when it comes to Social Security is that your claiming decision does not just affect you; it affects your spouse as well," Sarah Graham, a certified financial planner with VLP Financial Advisors, told the Street last year. "Many times, it is advisable for the spouse with the higher benefit to delay claiming until age 70 to maximize the benefit. When one spouse passes away later on, the surviving spouse will keep the higher benefit and give up the lower benefit."
But, what if you decide to retire early?
As per the restrictions delineated by the Social Security Administration, you cannot receive full spousal benefits (meaning 50% of your spouse's benefits) until you reach full retirement age (detailed above). Additionally, you may have to pay some of your Social Security benefits back if you continue working and collect your benefits before your FRA.
Because of the possible penalties and reduced benefit percentages, it is a good idea to coordinate with your spouse to ensure you are maximizing your benefits.
Spousal Benefits for Widowed or Divorced Spouses
If you are widowed or divorced, you may still be able to claim spousal Social Security benefits.
If you are widowed, you can collect your spouse's full benefits at full retirement age or reduced benefits as early as age 60.
You may be able to claim either your own benefits or a widow/widower benefit and later switch to your other benefits. For example, if your own benefit amount would be larger at age 70 than the widow/widower benefits, you could collect your spouse's benefit at age 60 then you could switch over to your benefits at 70. However, once your spouse has died, you can only claim either your or their benefits - but not both.
The advantage for widow benefits is that both partners can maximize their benefits by choosing to focus on the highest-earning spouse's benefits and set up an almost life-insurance-like plan.
However, if you are divorced, you may still be eligible for spousal benefits.
If you are at least 62 years of age, are unmarried, have been married for 10 years or more and your ex-spouse is entitled to Social Security benefits which would be more than your own benefits, you may be able to receive ex-spousal benefits. However, you might not be eligible for ex-spousal benefits if you have remarried. For more information, check out the Social Security Administration's guide for divorced benefits.
How to Apply for Social Security Spousal Benefits
How do you apply for Social Security spousal benefits?
You can apply online through the Social Security's Retirement/Medicare Benefits Application to receive retirement, spousal or Medicare benefits. The application supposedly takes about 15 minutes or so to complete.
Additionally, you can also apply by phone through the Social Security Administration, at 1-800-772-1213. Or, if you prefer to file in person, you can make an appointment with your local Social Security office.
Changes in Spousal Benefits: 'File-and-Suspend' and Deemed Filing
Over the past several years, there have been a couple changes to Social Security benefit law that have prevented "double-dipping" for benefits.
Namely, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 prevented couples using a so-called "file-and-suspend" strategy - where one spouse would file for and then suspend their benefits in order to increase their benefits through delayed retirement credits while their (lower-income) spouse began taking spousal benefits. Additionally, the Act prevented couples from both taking spousal benefits while simultaneously building delayed retirement credits on their own accounts. Now, the Act ensures that you are 'deemed' to have filed for all benefits you qualify for when you file for any of them - preventing the double-dipping strategy formerly used.