What Are Spousal Benefits?

February 12, 2020

The New York Times recently published common questions about Social Security benefits and their response.

Could you provide a full explanation of “spousal benefits” for living spouses, and for widows, widowers and divorced people?

The spousal benefit is available to couples who have been married at least one year. It allows one partner to claim a benefit as high as 50 percent of the benefit at full retirement age of his or her spouse — so long as that spouse has already claimed benefits. That requirement often trips up people hoping to generate some income while the higher-earning spouse puts off claiming benefits to earn delayed retirement credits.

“It’s one of the most misunderstood things that we see,” says Elaine Floyd, director of retirement and life planning for Horsesmouth, a firm that trains financial advisers.

If you claim a spousal benefit at your own full retirement age, the benefit will be equal to 50 percent of your spouse’s benefit. You can claim a spousal benefit as early as age 62, but your benefit will be reduced for early claiming.

If you are entitled to a spousal benefit when you file, in most cases you must file for both your own and your spousal benefit simultaneously. You’ll be paid your own benefit first; a spousal benefit amount will be added if your own benefit is less than half of your spouse’s total. Filing means that you will no longer accrue delayed retirement credits.

People born before Jan. 2, 1954, can still file for a “restricted claim” of only their spousal benefit. They were grandfathered into rules in place before passage of the Budget Act of 2015. This provision allows them to receive a spousal benefit while building delayed retirement credits on their own account, until age 70.

In most cases, widows or widowers can receive a survivor benefit when a spouse dies, providing they were married at least nine months at the time of death. The survivor benefit is equal to 100 percent of the deceased spouse’s benefit.

Many divorced people are surprised to learn that they can file for a spousal benefit on the record of an ex-spouse. To qualify, you must be single and have been previously married to your ex at least 10 years. You also cannot be receiving a benefit greater than your divorced spouse’s benefit. If the ex is 62 or older and the divorce occurred over two years earlier, the ex does not need to have filed for his or her benefit.

Eligibility for an ex’s benefit is lost if you remarry, and you can’t file for benefits on your new spouse’s earnings record until you’ve been married to that person at least one year.

If your ex-spouse is deceased, you may be able to claim a divorced-spouse survivor benefit. The rules are basically the same except that you can be remarried as long as you remarried after age 60.

Spousal benefits were made available to same-sex married couples after the landmark 2013 Supreme Court decision striking down key provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act.

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