If you have never worked or paid Social Security taxes (or didn't pay them for long enough), you won't be eligible to claim Social Security retirement benefits on your own account. However, you may be able to receive spousal benefits through your spouse's account. You can file a claim under their account as early as age 62, as long as your spouse has already filed to collect their own benefits. You will also be able to apply for Medicare health coverage at age 65. 

Key Takeaways

  • Spouses who aren't eligible for Social Security on their own work record can apply for benefits based on the other spouse's record.
  • The maximum spousal benefit is equal to 50% of the other spouse's benefit.
  • People can apply for spousal benefits as early as age 62, but they'll get more money if they wait until their full retirement age.

Spousal Social Security Rules [2020]

For many working couples, both partners will be eligible to collect individual benefits. However, that does not preclude either person from collecting under the other person's account. When you apply for benefits, both accounts will be checked to determine which claim will result in a higher benefit amount.

If your own benefit is larger, you will automatically receive that amount. If your spousal benefit is larger, you will receive a combination of benefits that total that amount.

While you can apply for spousal benefits as early as age 62, your benefit will be permanently reduced from what you would receive at your full or "normal" retirement age. Full retirement age, for Social Security purposes, is between 66 and 67, depending on your year of birth.

One exception: If you are caring for your spouse's child who is under age 16 or who receives Social Security disability benefits, you can collect spousal benefits at any age without a reduction.

In addition, if you decide to claim before full retirement age, your benefit amount may be reduced if you continue working, depending on how much you earn. Eligibility for government, foreign, or public service pensions may also affect your payments.

If you wait until full retirement age to claim benefits, you'll receive the maximum amount you can collect as a spouse. That is equal to 50% of your spouse's benefit amount.

The benefits claiming strategy known as "file and suspend" has been totally eliminated.

Changes to Social Security Law

Some changes to the law in recent years have affected how you can collect spousal benefits. If you were born on or before Jan. 1, 1954, you may still be eligible to use a benefits-claiming strategy known as a "restricted application" to increase your benefits.

Younger recipients won't be able to use this strategy, which was ended by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015.

How the Restricted Application Strategy Works for Eligible Spouses

If you reach full retirement age and are eligible for your own benefits as well as spousal benefits, you may choose to collect benefits under your spouse's account now and defer your own benefits until later. To file a restricted application, both you and your spouse must be of full retirement age, and you both must have filed for Social Security benefits.

Filing a restricted application can result in a higher benefit amount when you later file for Social Security under your own account. The reason is you will have accrued delayed retirement credits for each year you deferred retirement, up to age 70, when benefits max out.

Each year of delayed retirement is worth an additional 8% in benefits for those born between 1943 and 1954. So, for example, a person born in 1952 who retires in 2021 at age 69 will receive an additional 24% over and above what they would have received had they started collecting in 2018 at their full retirement age. However, only one person per couple may collect spousal benefits while earning delayed retirement credits on his or her own account.

And, to repeat, this option is no longer available to anyone who wasn't born on or before Jan. 1, 1954.

'File and Suspend' Has Been Totally Eliminated

You may also hear or read about another Social Security claiming strategy known as file and suspend. Unfortunately, it is no longer applicable, also due to the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015. Using this strategy, the higher-earning spouse could file for Social Security at full retirement age (thus making it possible for their spouse to get spousal benefits), but then "suspend" his or her claim and not take benefits until later, while racking up delayed retirement credits in the meantime.

Applying for Spousal Benefits

You can apply for spousal benefits online at the Social Security Administration (SSA) website, over the phone, or by making an appointment at your local Social Security office. The SSA website also has links to information about the maximum amount you can earn while collecting benefits and an online calculator to help estimate your potential spousal benefit.