The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 changed the rules on filing for spousal benefits under Social Security, eliminating some popular claiming strategies that once allowed couples to increase their benefits. The new law didn't, however, do away with spousal benefits entirely. If you qualify, it is still possible to claim benefits based on your spouse's earnings history, even if you never contributed to Social Security yourself. 

Key Takeaways

  • In 2015 the federal government changed the rules on filing for spousal benefits from Social Security.
  • The new rules ended several popular strategies that couples once used to boost their total benefits, such as "file and suspend."
  • Spousal benefits are still available to many spouses (and in some cases, divorced spouses), even if they never paid into the Social Security system themselves.

Claiming a Spousal Benefit Under the New Rules

People who were born before Jan. 2, 1954 and have reached their full or "normal" retirement age are still covered by one of the former rules. That means they can file a "restricted application" to receive a spousal benefit equal to as much as half their spouse’s benefit and later switch to a benefit based on their own work history. By waiting to claim their own benefit (up to age 70), they will earn delayed retirement credits, which result in a bigger monthly benefit when they finally do file for it .

For anyone born on Jan. 2, 1954 or later, however, the ability to claim a spousal benefit using a restricted application has been eliminated. Spouses can still file for a spousal benefit, but when they do, they will be considered to have filed for all benefits available to them, including their own benefit. They will then receive whichever benefit is higher, but not be able to switch from a spousal benefit to their own benefit later on.

Spousal Benefit Eligibility

You are eligible for spousal benefits if your spouse has filed for Social Security benefits and you are at least age 62 or caring for a child who's entitled to receive benefits on your spouse’s record and who is younger than age 16 or is disabled.

Unless you are entitled to benefits based on a qualifying child, your benefits will be reduced if you begin to collect them before you reach your full retirement age. For people born in 1960 or later, for example, full retirement age is 67.

If you start collecting spousal benefits at age 62, you'll receive an amount that's between 32.5% and 37% of your spouse's full benefit. If you wait until your full retirement age to collect, you'll receive a benefit of up to 50% of your spouse's full benefit. Unlike regular retirement benefits, there is no incentive to delay collecting spousal benefits beyond full retirement age.

Note also that if you start collecting spousal benefits before your full retirement age and are working, you may be subject to the Social Security earnings test, which could result in a reduced benefit, at least temporarily. 

Spousal Benefits for Divorced Spouses

In some cases ex-spouses can collect spousal benefits based on their former spouse's earnings history.

In order to qualify, they must:

  • Be 62 or older.
  • Have been married to the spouse for at least 10 years.
  • Be currently unmarried.

Unlike currently married spouses, divorced spouses can apply for benefits even if their ex-spouse hasn't started collecting their own benefits yet (although the ex-spouse must be eligible for them). However, they need to have been divorced for at least two continuous years when they apply. 

As with spousal benefits for current spouses, divorced spouses filing for spousal benefits may be subject to the Social Security earnings test if they haven't reached full retirement age and are working.