4 Things You Might Not Know About Social Security Spousal Benefits

Senior couple using laptop

Most taxpayers are aware of the retirement benefits of the Social Security system. However, perhaps one of the greatest benefits of the entire program, the spousal benefit, is not as well-known.

The spousal benefit provides for lifelong retirement payouts to eligible spouses, even if they never worked a day in their entire lives. However, as with any governmental program, there are a number of rules and regulations that you’ll have to know in order to maximize your benefit.

Here’s a look at some of the most important characteristics of the Social Security spousal benefit that you may not be familiar with. 

Your Spousal Benefit May Be Larger Than Your Own Personal Benefit

If you only work a part-time job or have large gaps in your employment history, you may not think that you’ll be entitled to much from Social Security once you retire. However, if you’re married, you might end up receiving more than you could imagine. 

If you wait to file for a spousal benefit until full retirement age, which is 67, your Social Security benefit will be the larger of your own qualifying benefit or 50% of your spouse’s benefit.

For example, if your spouse is entitled to a $3,500 monthly payout from Social Security, you can claim a $1,750 monthly benefit once you reach full retirement age. Since the average Social Security benefit for most workers in December 2023 was $1,710.78, it’s possible that your spousal benefit will exceed the amount of your personal benefit.

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If Your Spouse Claims Benefits Early, Your Payout Will Suffer

The amount a beneficiary receives from Social Security depends on both their work record and when they file.

Although full retirement age is now 67 for most workers, you can file a claim to start benefits as early as age 62. However, your benefits will be permanently slashed by as much as 30%.

In other words, if your full retirement benefit is $2,000 per month at age 67, by filing at age 62, that monthly amount will drop to just $1,400. 

A spouse’s Social Security benefit is directly tied to the payout that the primary beneficiary receives. Thus, if your spouse files for benefits at age 62, your own spousal benefit will be permanently reduced as well.

Rather than receiving 50% of your spouse’s full retirement age benefit of $2,000, or $1,000 per month, you would only receive $700, or 50% of your spouse’s reduced $1,400 payout.

Spouses Won’t Earn a Larger Benefit by Waiting To File at Age 70 

Just as workers face a reduced Social Security retirement payout if they claim early — such as at age 62 — those who delay their payouts will see them increase.

If you start receiving retirement benefits at age 67, you’ll get 108 percent of the monthly benefit because you delayed getting benefits for 12 months past your full retirement age. If you start at age 70, you’ll get 132 percent of the monthly benefit because you delayed getting benefits for 48 months past your full retirement age.

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However, spouses aren’t entitled to share in this benefit, as their payout is capped at 50% of the primary beneficiary’s full retirement benefit. So, even if your spouse waited until age 70 to collect that $2,640 monthly payout, your maximum benefit would remain at 50% of $2,000, or $1,000 per month.

Even If You’re Divorced, You Might Be Entitled To Benefits

Even those who are aware that Social Security provides a spousal benefit may think that divorce terminates that option. In many cases, it does, but if you were married at least 10 years before you got divorced and you haven’t remarried, and your ex-spouse is age 62 or older, you’re still entitled to the same Social Security spousal benefit as before.

At full retirement age, even if you’re divorced, you can claim a benefit worth 50% of your ex-spouse’s as long as you were married for at least 10 years and aren’t remarried. However, this benefit will be reduced if you claim before full retirement age, just as it is for any worker claiming a Social Security retirement benefit.

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Laura Beck and Cynthia Measom contributed to the reporting for this article.

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