Money & Policy

A Woman’s Guide To Social Security Spousal Benefits

How to maximize retirement benefits accrued through marriage

Social Security is a vital source of retirement income for most women. For this reason, it is important to understand how the spousal benefit works and how it can impact the amount of Social Security retirement income you receive.

While this information is geared toward women, it also applies to men who may claim the spousal benefit based on their wife's (or ex-wife's) earning record.

As a spouse, you can claim a Social Security benefit based on your own earnings record, or collect a spousal benefit in the amount of 50 percent of your husband's Social Security benefit, but not both. You are automatically entitled to receive whichever benefit provides you the higher monthly amount.

(MORE: Social Security: What Every Woman Needs to Know)

Age Requirements

In order to qualify for Social Security spousal benefits, you must be at least 62 years old and your husband must also be collecting his own benefits. If your husband is of Full Retirement Age and is not yet collecting benefits, he can apply for retirement benefits and then request to have the benefits suspended and receive delayed retirement credits until age 70.

Once he has applied for and suspended his benefits, you would then be able to apply for spousal benefits. Additionally, if you are the higher earner, your husband can apply to collect spousal benefits based on your work record. It is important to note that claiming a spousal benefit does not impact the benefit amount received by the worker whose earning record is being used.

(MORE: What Spouses Should Know About Pension Benefits)

Taking Benefits Early
If your husband takes Social Security before his Full Retirement Age, his monthly benefits will be reduced. Your spousal benefits in turn will be calculated based on this reduced amount, thereby reducing your monthly benefits. If your husband takes Social Security early, and you also take Social Security early, you will be significantly reducing the amount of benefits that may be paid out over your lifetime. This is because the earlier you take your benefits before your Full Retirement Age, the more your benefits are reduced. For example, if your Full Retirement Age was 66, then the following reductions to benefits would apply:
  • At age 65, you would receive 45.8 percent of your spouse's benefit.
  • At age 64, you would receive 41.7 percent of your spouse's benefit.
  • At age 63, you would receive 37.5 percent of your spouse's benefit.
  • At age 62, you would receive 35 percent of your spouse's benefit.

For Divorced Spouses

You can receive benefits as a divorced spouse on your ex-husband's Social Security record, even if he has remarried and his current wife is collecting benefits based on his record. However, there are a few eligibility requirements:
  • You must have been married to your ex-husband for at least 10 years.
  • You must be at least 62 years old. However, if your ex-husband is deceased and you are currently unmarried, you may collect benefits as early as age 60 as a surviving divorced spouse. If he is deceased and you are disabled, you can collect benefits as early as age 50.
  • Your ex-husband must be eligible for benefits. If he is eligible but is not currently receiving benefits, you can still qualify for spousal benefits if you have been divorced for two or more years.
  • You must not be currently married. If you remarried and your second husband is deceased, you can claim benefits from either your first or your second husband as long as each marriage lasted at least 10 years.

For Surviving Spouses

  • If your husband passes away, you can collect survivor's benefits as early as age 60. You are eligible to receive his full Social Security benefit amount.
  • If your ex-husband is deceased and you remarry before age 60 (or 50 if you are disabled), you cannot receive survivor's benefits unless the latter marriage ends (whether it's through death, divorce, or annulment). If you remarry after age 60, you can continue to receive benefits on your former husband's Social Security record. However, if your current husband is also a Social Security beneficiary and you would receive a larger benefit from his work record than you would from your former husband's record, you should apply for spousal benefits on your current husband's record. You cannot receive both benefits.
  • Regardless of your age or marital status, if you are caring for your deceased husband's child or children, you would be eligible to receive benefits for raising them until they are 16 years old. These children can then continue to receive benefits based on your husband's work record until they are 18 or 19, as long as they are unmarried. If a child is still a full-time student (no higher grade than grade 12) at 18, he or she can continue to receive benefits until two months after turning 19 or until graduation, whichever comes first. Children who are disabled can also continue to receive benefits after they turn 18 years old.

(MORE: Preparing for Social Security: A 7-Point Checklist)

Applying for Benefits

You can apply for benefits online here. You can also apply over the telephone by calling 1-800-772-1213, or apply in person by visiting your local Social Security office. For more information on how to apply, visit the Social Security Administration website.
To make the application process easier, you should know your husband's (or ex-husband's) date of birth and Social Security number. You may also be asked to provide certain documents as proof of eligibility, such as your birth certificate or other proof of birth, naturalization papers, W-2 forms, a marriage certificate, or divorce papers if you're applying as a divorced spouse.

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