If you're eligible for Social Security spousal benefits, how much you'll receive depends on a number of factors, including your age, the amount of your spouse's benefit, and whether you have other retirement benefits available to you. Who's eligible? Anyone whose spouse, ex-spouse, or deceased spouse was or is eligible for benefits, once you have reached the age of eligibility is eligible.

The maximum amount you can receive is 50% of your spouse's full benefit. That's straightforward enough, but the precise amount you'll get and when you'll get it depends on several circumstances, including your spouse's age and work history, your own age and work history, and more. That leaves some room for you to maximize the amount you receive. And, remember, if that amount is less than the amount you'd get based on your own work history, you'll automatically get the higher amount.

Below, you'll find out if you qualify for Social Security spousal benefits and how to find out the amount you'll get. And, you'll learn the fate of a couple of once-popular spousal benefits loopholes in the Social Security rules. (Hint: It's not good news.) Nevertheless, if you know the rules highlighted in this article, you'll be able to maximize your Social Security spousal benefits.

Key Takeaways

  • The maximum spousal benefit is 50% of the other spouse's full benefit.
  • You may be eligible if you're married, formerly married, divorced, or widowed.
  • You can collect spousal benefits as early as age 62, but in most cases, the benefits are reduced permanently if you start collecting early.
  • If your own work history earns a higher benefit, you'll receive that amount rather than the spousal benefit.
  • In 2015, the federal government changed the rules on filing for Social Security spousal benefits, eliminating some claiming strategies that allowed couples to increase their benefits.

Who Qualifies for Social Security Spousal Benefits?

If your spouse has filed for Social Security benefits, you can also collect benefits based on the spouse's work record, if:

  • You are at least 62 years old.
  • Regardless of your age, if you care for a child who is entitled to receive benefits on your spouse’s record, and who is under age 16 or disabled.

When you apply for spousal benefits, you will also be applying for benefits based on your own work history. If you're eligible for benefits based on your own earnings, and that benefit amount is higher than your spousal benefit, that's what you'll get. If it is lower, you'll get the spousal benefit.

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Image by Sabrina Jiang © Investopedia 2020

How Spousal Benefits Are Calculated

Spousal benefits are based on how much the other spouse would receive if that person began collecting benefits at the full or "normal" retirement age.

The Social Security Administration has an online calculator that can show you what percentage of your spouse's benefits you will be eligible for depending on your own age when you start receiving benefits.

The short answer to the calculation is this: You're eligible for half of your spouse's benefit amount as long as you wait until your full retirement age to apply. The earlier you file, the less you'll get.

Full Retirement Age

As you might expect, "normal" retirement age is becoming later in life, but the changes to the Social Security rules are being phased in. It is age 66 for those born between 1943 and 1955. It increases gradually to age 67 for those born from 1955 to 1960. For those born after 1960, it's 67.

A Social Security online calculator shows you the percentage of your spouse's benefits you will get, based on your age when you apply.

No matter when your spouse actually retires, or if your spouse dies, that person's "normal" benefit amount is relevant to you in calculating your spousal benefit entitlement.

Claiming Early or Late

Your spousal benefit is based upon your partner's "normal" benefit amount. But the amount you receive will depend upon when you begin to claim it.

You can claim spousal benefits as early as age 62, but you won't receive as much as if you wait until your own full retirement age. For example, if your full retirement age is 67 and you choose to claim spousal benefits at 62, you'd receive a benefit that's equal to 32.5% of your spouse's full benefit amount.

The amount increases with each year you delay. At your full retirement age (67 in this example) you'd be eligible for the maximum, which is 50% of your spouse's full benefit.

Notably, spousal benefits are not reduced if the spouse is caring for a child who qualifies under the age or disability rules. Spousal benefits can never exceed 50% of the other spouse’s full benefit. So, there is no incentive to file for spousal benefits later than your own full retirement age.

An ex-spouse may be eligible for spousal benefits even if the former spouse hasn't retired yet.

If You're Receiving Other Retirement Benefits

The calculation gets a bit more complicated if you are eligible to receive benefits from a government pension or foreign employer that is not covered by Social Security. In that case, you may still be eligible, but the amount will be reduced.

For example, if you have a government pension for which Social Security taxes are not withheld, the amount of your spousal benefit is reduced by two-thirds of the amount of your pension. This is known as a government pension offset.

For example, suppose you are eligible to receive $800 in Social Security spousal benefits and you also get $300 from a government pension each month. Your Social Security payment is reduced by two-thirds of $300, or $200, making your total benefit amount from all sources $900 per month ($800 - $200) + $300).

Same-Sex Married Couples

Same-sex married couples have enjoyed the same rights as all other couples since the 2015 Supreme Court ruling affirming their constitutional rights to marriage recognition. And that means they're eligible for Social Security spousal and dependant benefits.

Social Security also recognizes some non-marital legal relationships such as civil unions and domestic partnerships.

The Social Security site urges spouses to apply for benefits if they think they may be eligible.

Divorced and Widowed Spouses

The rules for Social Security spousal benefits for divorced and widowed people are complex in order to cover all conceivable circumstances.

Spousal Benefits for Divorced Spouses

If you're divorced, you may be eligible for spousal benefits based on your ex-spouse's work record. The rules are much the same, plus:

  • Your marriage must have lasted for at least 10 years.
  • You must currently be unmarried.

If your former spouse hasn't filed for benefits yet, you can still file for spousal benefits if you have been divorced for at least two years.

If your ex-spouse is still living, in most cases you must be at least 62 years old and your spouse must be old enough to qualify for benefits. (Whether the ex-spouse is actually taking benefits or not doesn't matter.)

If your ex-spouse has died, your benefits are similar to those of a widow or widower.

Spousal Benefits for Widows and Widowers

A widow or widower can receive up to 100% of a spouse's benefit amount. That's if the survivor has reached full retirement age at the time of the application.

The payment is reduced to somewhere between 71% and 99% of the deceased's entitlement if the widowed person is at least 60 but under full retirement age.

Disabled people can apply as early as age 50. The agency has a streamlined application process to avoid delays in the first payment.

You may be eligible for benefits even if your spouse died long before reaching retirement age. Every employee racks up annual Social Security "credits" for working. If your spouse earned credits for at least 10 years, a spousal benefit has been earned.

It's important to note that it pays to hold off until you reach your "full" retirement age to maximize the amount you will receive.

Also, if you are receiving spousal benefits and your spouse dies, you need to notify Social Security. Your spousal benefit of 50% of your partner's benefit will convert to a survivor benefit of 100%.

And do it promptly. It's not usually retroactive.

Spousal Benefits Loopholes

You may hear or read about other ways to increase the amount of your spousal benefit. Unfortunately, under new Social Security rules, two popular strategies have been abolished.

The File and Suspend Strategy

Prior to 2016, workers could file for benefits (making their partners eligible to claim spousal benefits), then suspend their own benefits in order to maximize their credits for deferred filing. This so-called file and suspend strategy meant that a lower-income partner could take advantage of spousal benefits while the primary earner accrued delayed retirement credits, thereby increasing their benefit amount.

However, this "have your cake and eat it, too" loophole was closed with the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, which took effect in April 2016.

While it is still possible to file for benefits and then suspend payments temporarily, any other benefits that would normally be available on your account (such as spousal benefits) are no longer payable during such suspensions.

Deemed Filing

The 2015 law also stopped people born after Jan. 1, 1954, from double-dipping by claiming spousal benefits while accruing delayed retirement credits on their own accounts.

Previously, it was possible for those eligible for both types of benefits to claim spousal benefits first, while delaying a claim on their own account, a process sometimes called a restricted application. This allowed taxpayers to benefit from the earlier spousal payment while maximizing their own benefits through delayed retirement credits.

Under current law, spouses born after Jan. 1, 1954, are deemed to have filed for any and all benefits for which they are eligible as soon as they file for any of them. The payments they receive are based on whichever benefit amount is highest.

Strategies for Maximizing Spousal Benefits

Every married couple has to figure out the best way to maximize their benefits depending on their own circumstances.

The three strategies below will help you make the most of your Social Security spousal benefits, depending on your circumstances. However, keep in mind that, regardless of your circumstances, the most a spouse can get is 50% of the amount that the higher-earning partner is entitled to at full retirement age.

1. Strategy for Late Claimers

If one partner has little or no earnings history, the best strategy is for the wage earner to postpone applying for Social Security retirement benefits until age 70 to get the highest amount possible. Full retirement age is 66 for most baby boomers and 67 for everyone born in 1960 or later, but by delaying claiming benefits until age 70, the wage-earner will accrue delayed retirement credits that will increase the monthly payments by 8% for each year of delay.

Keep in mind that this won't affect the spousal benefit amount. Spousal benefits differ from personal benefits when it comes to delaying payments. If you delay claiming for personal retirement benefits past full retirement age, the benefit increases over time, as explained above. However, that will have no impact on your spouse's benefits, since they max out at full retirement age (66 to 67). In other words, there is no benefit for your spouse to delaying the spousal benefit claim past your full retirement age.

On the other hand, if both partners work, and their earnings are more or less equal, their individual Social Security benefits will each be greater than the spousal benefit, so the best strategy for both is to postpone applying for benefits until age 70.

2. Strategy for Divorced Spouses

If you have been divorced for at least two years, you can apply for spousal benefits if your marriage lasted 10 or more years. If, on the other hand, you are still married and considering a divorce, and are near retirement age, try to apply for spousal benefits before your divorce is final. If you have been married and divorced multiple times, you can choose to receive whichever spousal benefit is highest. Saving your ex-spouses’ Social Security numbers and dates of birth will make the enrollment process easier.

3. Strategy for Widowed Spouses

Widows and widowers may receive full benefits at their full retirement age or reduced benefits as early as age 60, as explained in sections above. Remarrying after age 60 will not affect your eligibility for survivors benefits. However, it may be more convenient for you to forego your widow or widower spousal benefits depending on your circumstances.

If your current spouse is also eligible for Social Security benefits and earns more than your former spouse, you may wish to apply for spousal benefits based on your new spouse’s record instead.

If you are collecting a survivors benefit, but also qualify for a benefit on your own, you may wish to collect a survivors benefit in the early years of retirement and leave your own Social Security benefits to accrue delayed retirement credits. Then, you can switch to your own retirement benefit as late as age 70.

Social Security Spousal Benefits FAQs

Here are the answers to a few questions that come up frequently.

How Do Social Security Spousal Benefits Work?

You're eligible for spousal benefits if you're married, divorced, or widowed and your spouse is or was eligible for Social Security. Spouses and ex-spouses generally are eligible for up to half of the spouse's entitlement. Widows and widowers can receive up to 100%.

You can claim benefits based on your own work history or on that of your spouse. You'll automatically get the larger amount. (It's one or the other. You don't get both.)

If you are no more than three months away from age 62, you can apply online or by phone. If you plan to put off applying to get the largest payment possible, wait until you're no more than three months from full retirement age. That's 66 or 67, depending on your year of birth.

Can I Collect Half of My Spouse's Social Security at 62?

Not quite. The percentage of your spouse's Social Security that you receive starts at 32.5% at age 62 and steps up gradually to 50% at your full retirement age, 66 or 67 depending on your year of birth. The amount is based on your spouse's benefit at full retirement age.

The important point is this: Don't bother delaying past your full retirement age. The amount you receive won't grow beyond that age.

What Is the Maximum Spousal Social Security Benefit?

The maximum spousal benefit is 50% of the amount that the spouse is eligible to receive at full retirement age. That's a cap, by the way. If your spouse delays retiring until 70, the spouse gets more but you don't.

Survivors may receive up to 100% of the deceased person's Social Security amount. There's a complicated formula for families in which more than one dependant is eligible for benefits. It caps the maximum.

How Can I Switch From My Social Security Benefit to a Spousal Benefit?

Say you start collecting Social Security benefits at age 62 based on your own work history. Your spouse keeps working and delays filing until age 70. If your spousal entitlement is higher, you can switch to that. The spouse will get the maximum amount while you'll get 50% of the amount the spouse would have received at full retirement age.

To monitor your benefits or change them, you can create an account on the Social Security site. It contains a wealth of information and it allows you to make some changes online, although others require a phone call.

The Bottom Line

Maximizing your spousal Social Security benefits is all about the timing, and the timing is determined by your circumstances as a couple.

If both partners work, they should investigate what each partner's individual benefit will be. Unless one partner earns massively more than the other, it will probably pay for both to file individually, waiting at least to full retirement age, if not to age 70, if possible.