Social Security: How Does the COLA Increase Get Applied to Spousal Benefits?

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The much higher Social Security payments that go into effect in 2023 don’t only benefit retired workers — they also benefit spouses of those workers.

The Social Security Administration announced last week that the 2023 cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) will be 8.7% — the biggest bump in 41 years. The average benefit for retired workers will rise by more than $140 a month next year vs. this year, but the average benefit for spouses will increase even more than that. The COLA increase for everyone, including spouses, will be applied according to the same formula.

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In case you need a quick primer on spousal benefits, the SSA says that when a worker files for retirement benefits, the worker’s spouse might be eligible for a benefit based on the worker’s earnings. To get the benefits, the spouse must be at least 62 years old or have a qualifying child in their care. A qualifying child is one who is under age 16 or who receives Social Security disability benefits.

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The spousal benefit can be as much as half of the worker’s “primary insurance amount,” depending on the spouse’s age at retirement. If the spouse begins receiving benefits before full retirement age, the spouse will receive a reduced benefit. However, if a spouse is caring for a qualifying child, the spousal benefit is not reduced. Waiting longer to receive benefits will typically boost your payment amount.

If a spouse is eligible for a retirement benefit based on their own earnings — and if that benefit is higher than the spousal benefit — then the spouse is paid their own retirement benefit. Otherwise, the spouse receives the spousal benefit.

Thanks to the new COLA, the average benefit for all retired workers will rise to $1,827 a month in 2023 from $1,681 in 2022, according to an SSA Fact Sheet. For spouses, the average benefit will rise to $2,616 a month in 2023 from $2,407 in 2022.

One thing to keep in mind: Because of the way spousal benefits are calculated, you can’t assume your benefit payment will increase by the announced Social Security COLA, according to the Social Security Intelligence website. Instead, the COLA is applied to your primary insurance amount first, then adjusted based on increases for filing later or reductions for filing early.

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As previously reported by GOBankingRates, the SSA will mail COLA notices throughout the month of December to retirement, survivors and disability beneficiaries, along with SSI recipients and representative payees. These notices will let you know your new benefit amount in 2023.

If you want to know your new benefit amount sooner, you can get your Social Security COLA notice online using the Message Center in your personal my Social Security account. The information will be available in early December.

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About the Author

Vance Cariaga is a London-based writer, editor and journalist who previously held staff positions at Investor’s Business Daily, The Charlotte Business Journal and The Charlotte Observer. His work also appeared in Charlotte Magazine, Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal and Business North Carolina magazine. He holds a B.A. in English from Appalachian State University and studied journalism at the University of South Carolina. His reporting earned awards from the North Carolina Press Association, the Green Eyeshade Awards and AlterNet. In addition to journalism, he has worked in banking, accounting and restaurant management. A native of North Carolina who also writes fiction, Vance’s short story, “Saint Christopher,” placed second in the 2019 Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition. Two of his short stories appear in With One Eye on the Cows, an anthology published by Ad Hoc Fiction in 2019. His debut novel, Voodoo Hideaway, was published in 2021 by Atmosphere Press.
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