Social Security is part of the retirement plans of almost every worker in the United States. The Social Security system is designed to establish a connection between the contributions made by workers and their employers throughout their working years and the corresponding benefits they will receive.
Many married couples rely on a valuable benefit known as spousal benefits from Social Security. As you approach retirement age, gaining a clear understanding of these benefits can empower both you and your partner to make well-informed decisions.
To optimize the benefits, it’s important to understand the ins and outs, including timing aspects as well as the eligibility requirements.
Understanding the Terms Related to Social Security Claiming
Before we get into spousal claiming, it may be helpful to first understand some terms related to how Social Security determines your benefit amount. The important concepts include:
- Full Retirement Age (FRA): the age when you are entitled to full retirement benefits from Social Security
- Primary Insurance Amount (PIA): your projected Social Security benefit amount at your FRA
- “Deemed Filing”: if you turn age 62 on or after January 2, 2016, when you file for benefits you will be deemed to be filing for all benefits you are eligible for and if your spouse has already filed, you will automatically receive the larger of your own or the spousal benefit
What Are Social Security Spousal Benefits?
When you get Social Security, you can apply for benefits based on your own work history or that of your spouse (or ex spouse if you were married for over 10 years).
Spousal benefits can be beneficial under the following circumstances:
- A spouse has no work history
- They haven’t worked long enough to qualify for their own individual benefit based on their earnings record
- The Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) for the lower-earning spouse is less than half of the PIA for the higher-earning spouse (If your own work history earns a higher benefit, you’ll receive that amount rather than the spousal benefit)
Put simply, a spousal benefit ensures that as long as the lower-earning spouse files for Social Security at their FRA, they will not receive less than 50% of the higher earning spouse’s FRA benefit. In addition, it’s important to understand that spouses cannot claim the spousal benefit until the primary earner files for their benefit.
NOTE: A law passed in 2015 that eliminated a spousal claiming strategy that enabled you to start with spousal benefits, then moving to your own benefits later or vice versa. This was often referred to as a “restricted application.” People born after Jan 1, 1954 cannot file a restricted application. Since it’s the end of 2023, anyone born in 1953 or earlier who had the opportunity to use restricted application is either already 70 or will have turned 70 in 2023 and Social Security benefits don’t increase beyond age 70 (no reason for delaying them past that age). Going forward, if an individual files prior to FRA and is eligible for both their own worker benefit and spousal benefits, they must file for both benefits at the time of filing, meaning they cannot choose which benefit to apply for (this is called “deemed filing”).
Spousal Benefits Are Not the Same Thing as Survivor Benefits
Both spousal benefits and survivor benefits are types of Social Security benefits provided by the U.S. Social Security Administration, but they serve different purposes and are available under different circumstances.
Spousal benefits: When you file for Social Security and are married (or divorced but had been married for over 10 years), you have the option of filing for your own benefits or benefits based on your spouse’s work history.
- Spousal benefits are generally equal to half of the primary worker’s full retirement benefit.
Survivor benefits: Survivor benefits are available to the surviving spouse or ex-spouse of a deceased worker who was eligible for Social Security benefits. The surviving spouse must typically be at least 60 years old (50 if disabled) to claim survivor benefits.
- Survivor benefits are generally equal to the full benefit amount the deceased worker was receiving or entitled to receive at the time of their death. Survivors can choose to receive benefits as early as age 60, but the amount may be reduced if claimed before their full retirement age.
Meeting the Requirements: Who Gets Social Security Spousal Benefits
It’s important to confirm you meet the eligibility criteria for spousal benefits.
To be eligible for spousal benefits, a current spouse must:
- Be married to someone who qualifies for Social Security benefits by having enough work credits – generally 40 credits or 10 years of work history paying into Social Security
- Be married to someone who is currently receiving those Social Security retirement benefits
- Be married to the qualifying spouse for at least 1 year before applying for spousal benefits
- Be at least 62 years old OR
- Be any age and have in your care a child younger than age 16, or who has a disability and is entitled to receive benefits on your spouse’s record.
Even if you never worked or contributed to Social Security on your own, you can still qualify for spousal benefits. Also, as mentioned above, if your own benefit is higher than 50% of your spouses, you will continue receiving your own benefit.
NOTE: A divorced spouse also has the potential opportunity to collect up to 50% of their ex-spouse’s full retirement benefit. There’s a separate set of eligibility requirements and additional factors to consider as a divorced spouse.
A Formula for the Maximum Spousal Benefit
A simple formula can help determine your maximum spousal benefit, or benefit.
Maximum Spousal Benefit = 50% of higher-earning spouse’s FRA less your FRA benefit (if any)
Let’s take a look at a couple of examples here to better understand this formula.
Maximum Spousal Benefit in a One-Income Household
Tom and Linda are married and Linda is the primary earner in their family. They have the following PIA amounts:
- Linda’s benefit at FRA is $3,000
- Tom’s benefit at FRA is $0, because he did not work
The most Tom can receive as a spousal benefit in this situation is 50% of Linda’s benefit, or $1,500/month.
Maximum Spousal Benefit in a Two-Income Household
It’s slightly less straightforward if both individuals have a work record. The benefit will have two components: the individual’s own benefit based on their work record, and then any additional “spousal top-off” to the benefit that represents the difference between the spousal benefit and the own benefit.
Consider the following: Karen (age 60) and Bill (age 61) are starting to think about their retirement around the corner and optimizing their Social Security strategy. Karen has been working for 30 years while Bill has taken time off for various reasons throughout his career. They have the following PIA amounts:
- Karen’s personal PIA amount at her FRA (age 67) is $3,000
- Bill’s personal PIA amount at his FRA (age 67) is $1,000
If Bill claims at his FRA of 67 (before Karen), he will receive his own $1,000 Social Security benefit. Assuming Karen claims one year later at her FRA of 67, Bill will be able to receive 50% of Karen’s FRA benefit ($1,500) less his FRA benefit ($1,000) for a total of $500 on top of his FRA benefit (the “top-off”). In other words, Bill will maximize the spousal benefit and receive 50% of Karen’s benefit, or $1,500 per month.
This is a simple example where the couple takes their benefits at their respective Full Retirement Ages, but this isn’t always the case.
How Age Factors Into the Equation of Spousal Benefit Reductions
The timing of when spouses claim Social Security impacts the amount of benefits received over their lifetime. Full Retirement Age must be reached in order for the lower-earning eligible spouse to collect the maximum spousal benefit. Claiming spousal benefits early permanently reduces the monthly payment.
According to the Social Security Administration, a spousal benefit is reduced 25/36 of one percent for each month before Full Retirement Age, up to 36 months. If the number of months exceeds 36, then the benefit is further reduced 5/12 of one percent per month.
For a spouse who is not entitled to benefits on their own earnings record, this reduction factor is applied to the base spousal benefit, which is 50 percent of the worker’s (or higher-earning spouse’s) PIA. Let’s take a look at an example of Tom and Mary, a married couple, to understand this further:
- Tom is the higher-earner and his Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) is $3,400
- Mary, who is not entitled to benefits on her own earnings record, chooses to begin receiving benefits 36 months before her Full Retirement Age (FRA)
- Take 50% of $3,400 to get a $1,700 base spousal benefit
- Compute the reduction factor: 36 times 25/36 of one percent, or 25%
- Apply the 25% reduction to the $1,700 amount gives a spousal benefit of $1,275
- Mary’s final spousal benefit is 37.5% of Tom’s PIA
NOTE: There is an exception to this rule and you may be eligible to receive spousal benefits early without reductions. This may be the case if a spouse is caring for a qualifying child.
Example of Spouse Claiming Own Retirement Benefit Before FRA
Given the nuances of a spousal benefit, we’ll look at another example:
- Jim is 60 and his PIA at FRA (67) is $3,000
- Janet is also 60 and her PIA at FRA (67) is $1,000
- Jim plans to claim at FRA and Janet earlier at 62
- If Janet waited until FRA to claim, she would receive the maximum spousal benefit (remember the formula above?), or 50% of Jim’s PIA ($1,500) less her FRA benefit of $1,000 which would equal a $500 spousal benefit for a total benefit of $1,500 ($500 spousal benefit plus her own benefit of $1,000).
- However, since Janet plans to claim earlier than her FRA (5 years earlier), her personal benefit is reduced by 30% to $700 until FRA
- At FRA, Jim claims, and Mary is now eligible for her spousal benefit at her FRA, where she will receive the full $500 “spousal top-off” amount without reduction
- This top-off amount of $500 will be added to her own reduced $700 benefit for $1,200 total
Key Takeaways for Optimizing Your Social Security Spousal Benefits
Navigating information on spousal Social Security benefits can get complex. Keep these key points in mind as you explore how to optimize your spousal benefits:
- It is necessary for the higher-earning spouse to have claimed before the lower-earning spouse to unlock the spousal benefit
- In order to collect the maximum spousal benefit, the lower-earning spouse needs to wait until their FRA
- If the lower-earning spouse claims before FRA, then the benefit is reduced, but there is no increase in benefit for extending the spousal benefit past their FRA
- The age at which the primary earning spouse files for Social Security benefits doesn’t affect the spousal benefit calculation
- The spousal benefit becomes a consideration only when the lower-earning spouse’s PIA is less than half of the higher-earning spouse’s PIA
Modeling Social Security Spousal Benefits in the NewRetirement Planner
Thankfully, you don’t have to figure this all out completely on your own.
The NewRetirement Planner automatically models spousal benefits:
- If the lower earning spouse is currently below 70 years of age
- If the higher-earning spouse’s benefit at FRA is at least double the lower-earning spouse’s benefit (on their own work history) at FRA
- The Planner will model or switch to the spousal benefit on the date the higher earning spouse claims their own benefit
- A reduction in spousal benefits will be applied if the lower earning spouse claims their own benefit prior to reaching their FRA
There may be some workarounds for specific situations. Our Help Center has some additional articles and videos relating to Spousal Social Security benefits that can serve as a starting point for leading you in the right direction. If you still are unsure, take advantage of a Coaching session to get a second set of eyes on your Plan to ensure you have your information entered accurately and feel confident in your future decision-making.