Even people who have never paid into the Social Security system may be eligible for spousal benefits if they are married (or were formerly married) to someone who has contributed to it. In some instances they may also be able to apply for retroactive benefits.

Key Takeaways

  • Social Security spousal benefits are available to people whose spouses paid into the Social Security system, even if they never did themselves.
  • Spouses who apply at their full retirement age may be eligible for a benefit equal to 50% of the other spouse's benefit.
  • If spouses wait past their full retirement age to apply, they may be eligible for up to six months' worth of retroactive benefits, in the form of a lump-sum payment.

How Retroactive Benefits Work

Retroactive benefits are a one-time payment the Social Security Administration (SSA) can make to people who delay filing for retirement benefits beyond their full or "normal" retirement age (66 for many, 67 for those born in 1960 or later). 

In other words, if you file for benefits after you've reached your full retirement age, you can request a retroactive benefit to reimburse you for the monthly payments you've missed. However, the most you can receive is six months' worth of benefits.

For people who are filing for regular, non-spousal retirement benefits there is a trade-off. By filing for retroactive benefits back to the month they reached full retirement age, they lose the delayed retirement credits they would otherwise have earned. With spousal benefits, however, delayed retirement credits don't apply, so there is no downside to requesting a retroactive benefit.

The Bottom Line

If you've waited to apply for Social Security spousal benefits past your full retirement age, you may be eligible for a retroactive payment. That said, the simplest way to apply for spousal benefits is to do so at your full retirement age and start collecting them right away.

Because retroactive benefits are a relatively obscure option, it's best to seek out a knowledgeable counselor at your Social Security office for guidance.