How does my spousal Social Security benefit work?

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If you have never worked or paid Social Security taxes (or not paid them for long enough), you will not be eligible to receive Social Security retirement benefits on your own account. However, you may be eligible to receive benefits through your spouse's account if that spouse is eligible.

You can file a claim under his or her account as early as age 62, just as long as your spouse has already filed to collect his or her own benefits. You will also be able to apply for Medicare at age 65 as long as your spouse is at least 62. However, as with all Social Security retirement benefits, your age will affect the amount you can collect.

How It Works

In many couples, both partners may be eligible to collect individual benefits. However, this 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 the higher benefit amount. If you apply before you have reached full retirement age and your own benefit is larger, you will automatically be paid that amount. If your spousal benefit is larger, you will receive a combination of benefits that total that amount. Either way, your benefit will be reduced by a certain percentage for each month benefits are collected before you reach full retirement age. Full retirement age is between 66 and 67 depending on your year of birth.

In addition, if you decide to claim before full retirement age, your benefit amount may be reduced if you choose to continue working, depending on how much you earn. Eligibility for government, foreign, or public service pensions may also affect your payments. On the other hand, if you are caring for a child who is age 16 or under and receives Social Security disability benefits, you may collect spousal benefits at any age without reduction.

If you wait until full retirement age to collect benefits, the maximum amount you can collect as a spouse is one half of your spouse's benefit amount. You are also entitled to your own benefit - whichever amount is higher.

Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015

Recent changes in Social Security law changed how you can collect spousal benefits. If you reached age 62 by December 31, 2015, you are eligible to use a benefits-claiming strategy known as a "restricted application" that could increase your benefits. Younger recipients won't be able to use this strategy, which was ended by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015. (For related reading, see: Am I losing the right to collect spousal Social Security benefits before I collect my own?)

Here's how the restricted application works for those who are eligible: 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 collection of your own benefits. To file a restricted application, both you and your spouse must be of full retirement age and he/she must have already filed for Social Security benefits.

If you live long enough, filing a restricted application may result in a higher benefit amount when you later file for Social Security under your own account. The reason: You will have accrued delayed retirement credits for each year you defer retirement, up to age 70. Each year of delayed retirement is worth an additional 8% in benefits for those born between 1943 and 1954. This means that a person born in 1949 who retires in 2018 at age 69 will receive an additional 24% over and above what he or she would have received had they begun collecting in 2015 at full retirement age. However, only one person per couple may collect spousal benefits while earning delayed retirement credits on his or her own account.

"File and suspend" is a second Social Security claiming strategy for spouses that ended after April 30, 2015, due to the Bipartisan Budget Act. Using this strategy, the higher-earning spouse could file for Social Security at full retirement age (thus opening up the chance for his/her spouse to get spousal benefits), but then "suspend" his claim and not take benefits until they reached the higher amounts available to those deferring retirement up to age 70. (To learn more, see: Alternative Strategies to File and Suspend.)

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, updated requirements for application, and online calculators to help you estimate your potential benefit amount.

December 2016