If you didn't reach age 62 by Dec. 31, 2015, you can not claim spousal Social Security benefits and later switch to claiming your own benefit. A federal law passed in 2015 eliminated that strategy, which some couples once used to maximize their Social Security benefits.

Key Takeaways

  • A federal law passed in 2015 eliminated two strategies couples formerly used to maximize their Social Security benefits.
  • Spouses born after Jan. 1, 1954, can no longer claim spousal benefits and later switch to collecting benefits based on their own work record.
  • The new law also ended "file and suspend," which allowed a spouse to file for benefits but delay collecting them in order to make the other spouse eligible for spousal benefits.
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Am I Able To Collect Spousal Benefits If I Have Earned A Pension?

What the 2015 Law Changed

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 eliminated two strategies previously allowed by the Social Security Administration that couples could use to boost their total benefits:

Restricted Application

The first strategy that the new law terminated or eliminated (your choice) was known as "restricted application." If your spouse had already filed for Social Security benefits and both of you had reached full or "normal" retirement age, you could file a restricted application just for spousal Social Security benefits. That allowed you to collect spousal benefits right away but wait up to age 70 to file for benefits based on your own work record. The longer you waited to collect, the larger your monthly benefits would be—up until age 70 when benefits maxed out, and there was no further incentive to delay.

Under the new law, spouses born after Jan. 1, 1954, are no longer eligible to file a restricted application.

File and Suspend

The law also ended a strategy known as "file and suspend," in which one partner in a married couple who had reached full retirement age, but not age 70, could file for Social Security benefits but wait to collect them.

Why would anyone do that? The reason was that the main beneficiary had to file for benefits before their spouse could claim a spousal benefit. But if the main beneficiary didn't want to collect their benefits until some later date, they could file—and immediately suspend—the receipt of those benefits. The other spouse could then file a restricted application that allowed them to collect an amount equal to half the main beneficiary's benefit.

Using this strategy, both spouses could let their benefits grow until they reached age 70 and get some money in the meantime from the spousal benefit. It didn't matter which spouse filed and suspended, or which spouse filed the restricted application, as long as they were both between full retirement age and age 70.

To illustrate how that worked, consider Chris and Pat. Both have reached their full retirement age, and Pat's benefit at full retirement age, were they to collect it, would be $2,000 a month. Under the old system, Pat could file and immediately suspend their benefits until a later date. If they waited until age 70, for example, their benefit would grow to about $2,700 a month.

Meanwhile, Chris could file a restricted application for their spousal benefit. They would receive an amount equal to half of their spouse's benefit, in this case, $1,000 a month. Their own benefit would also continue to grow until they started collecting it in the future.

But, as we've said, this strategy is no longer allowed.

When spouses file for Social Security benefits today, they'll receive an amount based on their own work record (if any) plus any difference they'd be entitled to from a spousal benefit.

How Spousal Benefits Work Now

The new law did not do away with spousal benefits entirely. Even spouses who have never worked or contributed to Social Security are still eligible to collect benefits based on their spouse's (or, in some cases, ex-spouse's) work record. To do so, the main beneficiary must be receiving retirement or disability benefits, and the spouse applying for spousal benefits must be at least age 62.

The rules for ex-spouses are a bit different: In their case, if the main beneficiary qualifies for retirement benefits but has not yet applied for them, the ex-spouse may be still eligible for spousal benefits as long as they've been divorced for at least two continuous years and meet certain other requirements.

Spouses may begin collecting a permanently reduced benefit between age 62 and their full retirement age; the amount will be based on their own work record (if any) and their spouse's. If their spousal benefit would be higher than their own benefit, they will receive their benefit plus an amount equal to the difference. If they wait to collect until full retirement age, they will receive a spousal benefit of up to one-half of their spouse's full retirement benefit. In the case of spousal benefits, unlike regular retirement benefits, there is no incentive to delay past full retirement age.