Spousal Benefits and Social Security

man in black suit jacket sitting on brown wooden bench during daytime
by Advice Chaser
by Advice Chaser
man in black suit jacket sitting on brown wooden bench during daytime

On March 26, Advice Chaser will be hosting Social Security Advisor Mark Kiner for a webinar titled, “Social Security—Basics and Advanced Planning Strategies.” Social Security is a difficult topic to understand, but this webinar should break it down.

One particularly confusing Social Security topic is spousal benefits. How do you know whether to take the benefits for your own work, or your spousal benefits? What if you’ve been divorced? How will things change when one of you passes? Today, we’ll talk about a few of those questions.

What Are Spousal Benefits?

Spousal benefits are Social Security benefits you receive, not because of your own work, but because of your spouse’s work. They’re useful if you have not worked during your working years, or if you have made significantly less than your spouse. Receiving the spousal benefit won’t reduce the benefits your spouse receives.

You are eligible for spousal benefits if you meet all three of these criteria:

  • You have been married for a year or more
  • Your spouse is currently receiving retirement benefits
  • You are at least 62 years old OR caring for a minor or disabled child

Divorced spouses are eligible provided the marriage lasted at least 10 years and you haven’t remarried. Couples in civil or domestic partnerships may also qualify.

You can’t receive both your own benefits and spousal benefits. When you apply, Social Security will give you whichever benefit is higher.

The maximum spousal benefit is 50% of your spouse’s full benefit. That’s the amount they would earn if they had claimed it at full retirement age—even if, in reality, they retired early. You earn this amount if you claim your benefit at full retirement age. You can claim as early as 62, but then your benefit is reduced to 32.5% of your spouse’s full benefit. This calculator will work out your percentage based on when you claim the benefit.

Survivor Benefits

If your spouse has died, you are eligible instead for survivor benefits. This is 100% of the deceased spouse’s benefit, if you claim at your full retirement age. You can apply as early as 60 (50 if you are disabled), but the benefit will be reduced.

Your deceased spouse does not need to have reached retirement age, so long as they have worked for at least ten years.

If you are receiving spousal benefits already when your spouse dies, notify the Social Security Administration to start receiving your full survivor benefit.

Spousal Benefit Strategy

So how do you maximize Social Security payments as a couple? In general, the longer you wait to claim benefits (up to 70), the more benefits you can earn. However, if you need the money now, it can make sense to have one spouse claim theirs while the other waits. Experts suggest having the lower lifetime earner claim early, while the higher lifetime earner waits till 70.

If one of you has little or no earnings, and expects to use the survivor benefit, it can make sense for the higher earner to file at full retirement age. Waiting longer won’t increase the other’s spousal benefits, since they’re maximized at 50% when the main earner reaches full retirement age. However, waiting longer will increase the higher earner’s benefit as well as the survivor’s benefit. It all depends on whether you can afford to wait and file later.

Learn About Spousal Benefits and More

Social Security can be confusing, but we’re here to help. Our webinar on Social Security strategies, featuring Marc Kiner, will be at 12 pm Pacific time on Friday, March 26th. Sign up now to learn about spousal benefits, benefit maximization strategies, and the future of Social Security.

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