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Social Security Spousal Benefits

As a spouse, you can collect Social Security benefits earned by your partner.

Written by Douglas Mark / July 7, 2022

Quick Bites

  • Your spouse’s monthly benefit amount depends upon your benefit’s amount, assuming that you had first worked long enough to attain your full or “normal” retirement age under Social Security’s newly updated rules.
  • Current and ex-spouses can apply for your Social Security benefits.
  • The good news it won’t impact your benefits

Spouses are eligible to collect Social Security earned by their partners. There are, as you might expect, rules and hoops through which you must jump. You can wait to receive the maximum amount, or take a permanently lower amount if you wish to start receiving funds earlier. Let’s dig deeper into Social Security and the benefits of a spouse.

Inside this article

  1. What is Social Security?
  2. Spouses can collect
  3. When to claim
  4. Getting other benefits?
  5. How about same-sex couples?
  6. Divorced? Still eligible
  7. Widows and widowers

What is Social Security?

Social Security is the main social insurance program in the United States. When workers experience disabilities, retire or die, this national pension plan substitutes a portion of their lost earnings.[1]

It’s also enormous. According to its latest report to Congress, the federal Social Security Administration plans to transfer more than $1.2 trillion worth of pension and disability benefits to as many as 74 million beneficiaries during fiscal year 2022 alone.[2]

The federal government finances the program through taxes that both workers and employers pay in the form of payroll deductions, which are in both cases mandatory.

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The federal government finances those benefits through a 12.4% payroll tax divided equally between each employee and employer. If you’re self-employed, however, you pay the full 12.4% tax. The annual maximum taxable earnings is $147,000, which means if you make more than that, you’re not taxed on the amount.[4]

As a spouse, you can collect part of your partner’s Social Security

You can collect part of your partner’s Social Security if you have not worked or do not have enough Social Security credits to qualify for your own Social Security benefits.

To qualify for spouse’s benefits, you must be one of these:

  • At least 62 years of age.

  • Any age and caring for a child entitled to receive benefits on your spouse’s record and who is younger than age 16 or disabled.

Your full spouse’s benefit could be up to 50% of what your spouse is entitled to receive at their full retirement age (this varies, we will explain further below). If you choose to begin receiving spouse’s benefits before you reach full retirement age, your benefit amount will be permanently reduced.

If you are eligible for your own Social Security benefits and you apply for your own retirement benefits and for benefits as a spouse, the agency will always pay your own benefits first. If your benefits as a spouse are higher than your own retirement benefits, you will get a combination of benefits equaling the higher spouse benefit.[3]

Tip

Full retirement age depends on when you were born. The traditional retirement age is 65, but that only still applies to folks born up until 1942. If you were born between 1943 and 1955, your retirement age is actually 66, and it’s 67 if you were born between 1955 and 1960.[5]

When to claim

The earlier you or your spouse claim Social Security, the less you get. If your spouse waits until the full retirement age (65 to 67, depending), they will get 50% of your benefit. If they don’t wait, that percentage will be lower and you can’t ever change it.[6]

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These payments won’t ever decrease your benefit. But according to Andrew Latham, a certified financial planner and the managing editor of SuperMoney.com, there’s a limit to how much the agency will pay per family, known as the maximum family benefit.

“The maximum you and your family can receive is 180% of your retirement benefit,” says Latham. “So, if you qualify for $1,000 a month, you and your family may qualify for up to $1,800.”

What if you’re receiving other benefits?

Suppose that you’re also a member of another government pension plan, but no organization ever withheld any payroll taxes to pay for that coverage. In this case, Social Security would impose a reduction in your spousal benefit equivalent to a 66% decrease in the pension amount.[8]

To simplify, for example let’s assume that you’re collecting $600 each month from another federal or state government pension plan that never withheld any Social Security taxes. Your Social Security payment would in this case be lowered by $400.

How about same-sex couples?

Since 2015, same-sex couples have received rights under the law equal to those of all other married couples, meaning they are eligible for Social Security’s spousal benefits. In fact, other legal forms of non-marital relationships, like domestic partnerships and civil unions, are today also recognized by Social Security.[9, 10]

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How much Social Security does an ex-spouse get?

It may seem unfair, but your ex gets part of your Social Security. However, there are rules, and they’re complicated. Here’s a summary:

  • The same minimal age requirement of 62 years applies, and to qualify, your ex-spouse must not be married.

  • The two of you need to have been married for ten years or more.

  • Assuming that you’ve been divorced at least two years, your former spouse can claim benefits if you are eligible and haven’t yet filed a claim. In other words, this means that if you’re divorced, even if you’re not retired, your ex-spouse might nevertheless qualify for benefits.[7]

  • What else does this mean? “Your ex-spouse can even start getting your retirement benefits before you do. But don't worry,” Latham says, because “if your ex-spouse qualifies for benefits, it won’t affect the total amount of benefits you and your family get. In other words, ex-spouse benefits are not included in the maximum family benefit calculation.”

  • In situations where an ex-spouse has died, the surviving former spouse’s benefits resemble those of widows and widowers, which we present next.

Spousal benefits for the bereaved

As long as the surviving spouse reached full retirement age by the time they applied, they’re entitled to a survivor benefit that’s typically as much as 100% of their deceased spouse’s benefit payment. And if they also happen to be disabled, that survivor can even apply while as young as age 50.

If the widow or widower is age 60 to full retirement age, Social Security will reduce their payments to between 71% and 99% of the full benefit. [11]

Even if a spouse died long before retirement age, a widow or widower still might be eligible for benefits. However, that’s only true so long as their spouse earned at least ten years’ worth of value-storage units Social Security calls “retirement credits.”[12]

If a spouse dies while one is receiving the full 50% benefit, that benefit converts to a survivor benefit of 100%. However, these conversions can’t ever be adjusted retroactively, so in this circumstance the survivor could only prevent lost benefits if they reach out to Social Security promptly.[13]

Should widows and widowers remarry, and their current spouse earns more than their deceased partner, they can base a new application for spousal benefits instead on the earnings of the spouse they just married.[11, 12]

Article Sources
  1. Economics: Principles, Problems, and Policies, Twenty-First Edition, Campbell R. McConnell, Stanley L. Brue, Sean Masaki Flynn, McGraw-Hill Education, 2018
  2. “Fiscal Year 2022 Congressional Justification.” SSA. https://www.ssa.gov/budget/FY22Files/2022BO.pdf
  3. “What is the eligibility for Social Security spouse’s benefits and my own retirement benefits?” SSA. https://faq.ssa.gov/en-us/Topic/article/KA-02011#:~:text=Your%20full%20spouse's%20benefit%20could,amount%20will%20be%20permanently%20reduced.
  4. “Topic No. 751 Social Security and Medicare Withholding Rates.” Internal Revenue Service. https://www.irs.gov/taxtopics/tc751
  5. “Normal Retirement Age.” SSA. https://www.ssa.gov/oact/ProgData/nra.html
  6. “Benefits for Spouses.” SSA. https://www.ssa.gov/oact/quickcalc/spouse.html
  7. “Benefits For Your Family.” SSA. https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/retirement/planner/applying7.html
  8. “Your Government Pension May Affect Social Security Benefits.” SSA. https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/retirement/planner/gpo-calc.html
  9. “Social Security for LGBTQ+ People.” SSA. https://www.ssa.gov/people/lgbtq/
  10. “Apply for Social Security Benefits.” SSA. https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/forms/
  11. “If You Are The Survivor.” SSA. https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/survivors/ifyou.html
  12. “Planning For Your Survivors.” SSA. https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/survivors/onyourown.html
  13. “Survivors Benefits.” SSA. https://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10084.pdf

About the Author

Douglas Mark

Douglas Mark

Douglas has written for some of the world's biggest brands including United Airlines and AT&T, as well as BSchools.org. Douglas previously worked as a partner at a San Francisco marketing and design firm.

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