Many people know that they're eligible for Social Security benefits based on their earnings history, but did you know that there's also a provision for spouses, regardless of whether they ever paid into the Social Security program? Spouses may also be eligible to claim benefits if widowed and, in some cases, even if divorced.
Spousal benefits are designed to recognize the many spouses who either never entered the workforce, or earned significantly less than their partner.
Who is eligible for spousal benefits?
To receive spousal benefits:
- Your husband or wife must already be receiving Social Security benefits.
- You and your spouse must have been married for at least one year.
- You must be at least 62 years old or…
- You must be caring for a child (under 16 or disabled) of the primary earner.
Spousal benefits are capped at 50% of the benefits that the working (or higher-earning) spouse would receive at their full retirement age.1 If the higher-earning spouse claims benefits before or after their full retirement age, it does not affect the maximum spousal benefit. The spousal benefit IS reduced, however, if the lower-benefit spouse claims spousal benefits before their own full retirement age.2
What is the survivor benefit?
If your spouse dies, you should apply for survivor benefits, which are different from spousal benefits. At the death of the working spouse, the lower-benefit spouse will "step up" to the benefit amount of the spouse who has passed away (subject to reductions if taken before the survivor's full retirement age). It is important to note that while spousal benefits are not impacted by the filing date of the higher-earning spouse, survivor benefits may be. If the higher-earning spouse delays filing beyond full retirement age, it will increase his or her benefits (8% per year from full retirement age up to age 70). This, in turn, maximizes the benefit the lower-benefit spouse will receive if widowed. Note that if you remarry before age 60, you won't be eligible to receive your late spouse's Social Security benefits.
What benefits are available after divorce?
You may be eligible to receive spousal benefits even if you're divorced. The following conditions must be met:
- You and your ex-spouse must have been married for at least 10 years.
- You must be divorced from your ex-spouse for at least two consecutive years.
- You must be currently unmarried.
- Your ex-spouse must be entitled to Social Security retirement or disability benefits.
- The benefits you would have received from your work record must be less than the spousal benefits.3
Divorced spouses who meet the above conditions are also entitled to apply for survivor benefits at the passing of their ex-spouse.4
Social Security benefits, including spousal benefits, are complex and warrant thorough analysis to ensure that you are making an informed decision before you file. As you near retirement, you'll want to explore your options on how best to take advantage of the program and maximize your benefits.
- 66 to 67 for most people approaching retirement. See https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/retirement/planner/ageincrease.html
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