Social Security provides benefits not only to retired workers but also to spouses who have not contributed to the program. Spouses are one of the many beneficiaries of Social Security, and even ex-spouses can claim a payout from the program in some circumstances.
When you apply for Social Security, you automatically apply for the greater of your benefit or half your spouse’s benefit. The average monthly payout for all retired workers was $1,553.68 in May 2021 according to the Social Security Administration (SSA), while those claiming spousal benefits received an average check of $795.89.
Here’s how Social Security works for those looking to claim a spousal benefit.
Claiming spousal benefits from Social Security: How it works
When a worker files for benefits from Social Security, the worker’s spouse may be able to claim a benefit based on the worker’s contributions. For spouses to receive the benefit, they must be at least age 62 or care for a child under age 16 (or one receiving Social Security disability benefits). In addition, spouses cannot claim the spousal benefit until the worker files for her or his benefit.
There are other important caveats about the spousal benefit as well.
“Spousal benefits are capped at half your spouse’s benefit at full retirement age. If (the worker) waits beyond that to claim, the spousal benefit cannot grow further,” says Claire Toth, managing principal and wealth strategist at New Jersey-based Peapack-Gladstone Bank.
Toth is referring to the strategy of a retiree not claiming benefits until past full retirement age in order to claim a bigger monthly benefit. Social Security will boost your benefit substantially if you delay filing until as late as age 70. It’s one way to juice your payout without working more.
However, if you file before full retirement age, your spouse will likely receive a permanently reduced benefit. Benefits may be reduced so that the spouse receives as little as 32.5 percent of the retiree’s benefit. The spousal benefit is reduced by about seven-tenths of one percent for each month before full retirement age, up to 36 months. If you exceed the 36 months, Social Security will dock about four-tenths of one percent for further months. The math can be complicated, but Social Security provides a tool to help you calculate your spousal benefit.
The exception to this rule of filing early is if a spouse is caring for a child under age 16 or one who is disabled, in which case the benefit is not reduced. In fact, this spouse could claim the spousal benefit at any age if they’re caring for a child who also receives benefits.
Ex-spouses can get a check, too
And yes, even ex-spouses can file based on your earnings. The requirements for claiming benefits based on your ex-spouse’s work record include:
- You must have been married at least 10 years.
- You must have been divorced from the spouse for at least two consecutive years.
- You are unmarried.
- Your ex-spouse must be entitled to Social Security retirement or disability benefits.
- The benefit you would receive from your work record would be less than this spousal benefit.
“In theory, a person could marry someone new every 10 years and give them a spousal benefit as a parting gift,” says Russell D. Knight, an attorney in Chicago. “It’s better than nothing.”
But it’s not like that money comes out of your monthly benefit check, so rest easy.
“When this happens, there’s no reduction to either the high earner or the current spouse – the Social Security Administration deals with this actuarially,” says Warren Ward, CFP at Warren Ward Associates in Houston.
Strategies for claiming a spousal benefit
Social Security offers quite a few options for how to claim your benefits, and while the options are meant to give flexibility to retirees and others, they do create more complexity. Everyone wants to get all the benefits they’re entitled to, and this complexity might obscure an avenue to receiving more money from the program. Spouses have a few ways to proceed here, and the best course of action often depends on your personal financial situation.
For those looking to max out their spousal benefit, one course of action is obvious.
“The best strategy to claim Social Security retirement benefits as a spouse is to wait until you reach normal retirement age, 65 to 67, depending on birth year,” says Lindsay Malzone, a Medicare expert at website MedicareFAQ. “Unless you currently care for a qualifying child, you will receive a reduced benefit if you have not yet attained normal retirement age.”
But there are exceptions to this general rule, especially if you believe your longevity is an issue.
“We usually start by considering health: How long did the same-sex parent live and what’s the current health situation for both partners,” Ward says. “Those with long expected life spans and good health are usually best off waiting until the maximum benefit is available. Those with shorter life expectancies or poor health may be better off starting sooner. Those with a terminal illness can file ‘as of’ six months ago and start receiving payments immediately and collect a check for those ‘missed’ payments.”
The spousal benefit may also offer some flexibility for older filers. For example, a spouse may be able to claim spousal benefits on a worker’s account and then later claim benefits on his or her account. If your spouse was born before Jan. 2, 1954 and has already reached full retirement age, your spouse can receive the spousal benefit and delay receiving their own retirement benefit until later. If your spouse was born after this date, this option no longer exists.
Spouses may also take their own benefit early and then switch to their partner’s benefit later.
“I have several clients where her own benefit is less than or very close to half the spousal benefit and he plans to wait until age 70 to claim,” Toth says. “In that case, the wife is often best off claiming early – sometimes as early as age 62 – and then switching to the spousal benefit when her husband claims. Her benefit only continues until the first death, and the survivor gets his benefit. Even if they both make it into their nineties, this is often the best result.”
And Social Security does also offer flexibility for a spouse whose partner dies.
“If the higher-earning spouse dies, the current spouse can claim the higher of their own benefit or that of the higher earner,” says Ward. “This is certainly better than nothing, but it does represent an overall ‘pay cut’ for the survivor.”
Planning for Social Security can be tough, but Bankrate’s calculator can help you estimate your Social Security earnings. Ward points out that the SSA’s website, financial planners and most brokerage firms also offer planning options and tools to help you out.
Spouses have a lot of flexibility, thanks to the Social Security spousal benefit. As you near retirement, you’ll want to explore your options on how best to take advantage of the program and maximize your benefits from the program.