Social Security Benefits: 6 Things Married Couples Should Know

An older couple plans their finances and looks forward to retirement.
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As with many government programs, Social Security has different rules for single people and married couples. The rules governing individuals are fairly simple — it all depends on how long you worked, how much you paid into the system and when you decide to file for benefits. Things are a bit trickier if you’re married, however.

Because no two couples are the same, there is no single guideline to follow when it comes to strategizing over how to maximize your benefits as a married couple. But there are some general rules to follow. Those rules are the same in 2024 as in any other year, though there are a couple of changes you should be aware of.

Here are six things every married couple should know about Social Security.

Social Security Spousal Benefit Basics

Spousal benefits provide retirement income to married couples in situations where one spouse either never worked or earned much less throughout their career. Spouses can qualify for Social Security spousal benefits if they are at least 62 years old and both spouses have filed for Social Security, and if the spouse has a qualifying child in their care. The Social Security Administration defines a qualifying child as a “child who is under age 16 or who receives Social Security disability benefits.”

Which Spouses Are Entitled to Social Security Benefits

You might think you’re only entitled to Social Security benefits if you made enough money or paid enough into the system. But for married couples, any spouse can claim Social Security, regardless of their earnings and marital status. As previously reported by GOBankingRates, if a couple is married for 10 years or more and then separates, each spouse is entitled to a certain percentage of the Social Security retirement benefit of the other.

Are You Retirement Ready?

The important point here is that even if a married couple separates, both partners might be able to claim Social Security. This is true even if one of the partners has no lifetime earnings.

The Amount of Spousal Benefits

According to the SSA, the spousal benefit can be as much as half of the worker’s primary insurance amount (PIA), depending on the spouse’s age at retirement. The PIA is the benefit you’re entitled to if you wait until full retirement age (FRA) to claim your benefit. For example, if your benefit at FRA would be $2,000, your spouse could get as much as $1,000 based on your work record.

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.

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 SSA pays the retirement benefit. Otherwise, it pays the spousal benefit.

Social Security recipients will get a 3.2% cost-of-living adjustment in 2024. For eligible couples who are both receiving benefits, the SSA estimates that the average monthly payment for January 2024 will be $3,033, up from $2,939 a year ago.

When You Can Claim Spousal Benefits

You can claim Social Security spousal benefits under these conditions: you are at least 62 years old, the benefit you’re entitled to is more than you would receive based on your own work record, and your spouse has filed for their own Social Security retirement benefits.

Are You Retirement Ready?

Claiming Survivor or Spousal Benefits Before Your Own Retirement Benefit

If the higher-earning spouse dies and the surviving spouse is eligible for survivor’s benefits, the surviving spouse might want to claim the survivor’s benefit early while delaying their own retirement benefit. The survivor’s benefit is 71.5% to 99% of the deceased worker’s benefit for a surviving spouse age 60 through full retirement age.

Rules Regarding Marital Separation

If you were married but have since separated, you might be eligible to start collecting Social Security on the record of your higher-earning former spouse. If your former spouse qualifies for benefits, you can begin to receive benefits using their record, provided that you are of retirement age, were married for at least 10 years and have been divorced for at least two consecutive years.

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