4 Social Security Spousal Benefit Mistakes To Avoid

Serious thing.
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Even if you’ve never worked a day in your life, you may be entitled to a significant Social Security check if you’re married to a qualifying recipient. In fact, you may be eligible for as much as half of the amount that your qualifying spouse receives, depending on when you file. But you’ll have to develop a strategy if you want to ensure you’re receiving as much as possible from the Social Security Administration. Here are a few of the most common mistakes that you’ll want to avoid if you’re filing for a Social Security spousal benefit. 

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Not Filing for Your Benefit

Intuitively, it can make sense that a person who has never worked should not even bother filing for Social Security benefits. After all, if you haven’t paid any Social Security tax into the system from your earnings, there shouldn’t be any benefit waiting for you after you reach retirement age. But if you’re married and at least age 62 – or if you care for a child 16 or younger who is entitled to benefits based on your spouse’s record – then you can file for your own spousal benefits – and those benefits may be quite significant. If you file at your full retirement age – which is 67 for those born in 1960 or later – your spousal benefit can be as much as 50% of your spouse’s benefit. Best of all, the Social Security Administration will always pay you the higher benefit to which you’re entitled, whether it’s based on your own work record or that of your spouse, so even if you’ve never worked or paid into the Social Security system, if you’re married, it still pays to file for benefits. 

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Filing Too Early

In order to get the full 50% spousal benefit, you must wait to claim your benefits until you reach your full retirement age. Just as if you were claiming your own primary Social Security benefit, you can file for spousal benefits as early as age 62. However, your monthly benefit will be permanently reduced.

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Filing Too Late

If you file for Social Security benefits based on your own work record, the longer you wait – until age 70 – the more your check increases. From the full retirement age of 67 to age 70, for example, benefits increase by 8% per year. This is a significant, risk-free boost to your earnings, making it worthwhile to wait if you can. But spousal benefits are different. Although your check will be permanently reduced if you file before your full retirement age, you won’t get the bump up in income that primary recipients will by waiting until age 70. In other words, you’ll receive the same spousal benefit whether you file at full retirement age or age 70. For this reason, you shouldn’t generally wait any later than your full retirement age to claim your spousal benefit. 

Overlooking Benefits From Ex-Spouse

Even if you’re divorced, you may still be entitled to spousal benefits based on your former spouse’s work record. This is probably one of the most overlooked aspects of the Social Security spousal benefit. To claim spousal benefits from an ex-spouse, however, you must have been originally married for at least 10 years and be at least age 62. You must also not have remarried. If you divorce when you are younger, you don’t lose the future rights to your spousal benefit, you just won’t be eligible to claim them until you reach age 62. At that point, however, ex-spouses are entitled to the same spousal benefit as if they were still married to the primary beneficiary. Those benefits can last for the rest of your life, if you choose to remain unmarried, or until your ex-spouse passes away, whichever comes first. However, at that point, you may become eligible for survivors benefits. An interesting side note is that if you remarry after age 60 – or after 50 if you have a disability – this will not affect your eligibility to receive survivor benefits based on your former spouse’s work record. This is not the case with spousal benefits, which generally cease upon remarriage at any age.

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About the Author

After earning a B.A. in English with a Specialization in Business from UCLA, John Csiszar worked in the financial services industry as a registered representative for 18 years. Along the way, Csiszar earned both Certified Financial Planner and Registered Investment Adviser designations, in addition to being licensed as a life agent, while working for both a major Wall Street wirehouse and for his own investment advisory firm. During his time as an advisor, Csiszar managed over $100 million in client assets while providing individualized investment plans for hundreds of clients.
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