Social Security Spousal Benefits Explained

In this article...
  • Social Security spousal benefits can pay an eligible spouse 50% of the partner’s benefit if it is higher than his or her own benefit. Claims can begin at age 62 but may be worth more at full retirement age. Read our Social Security review to learn more.

Social security is complicated for individual filers, and being married can make it even more complicated. That’s because Social Security includes benefits for the spouse as well as the individual. 

When an individual files for retirement benefits, that person’s spouse may be eligible for a benefit based on the worker's earnings according to the Social Security Administration.

In this Social Security review, we outline the rules for spousal benefits.

Who Can File for Social Security Spousal Benefits?

To be eligible for spousal benefits, you must be married, divorced or widowed, and your spouse either is or was eligible for Social Security.

The spouse must be at least 62 years old or have a qualifying child – a child who is under age 16 or who receives Social Security disability benefits – in his or her care.

Both opposite-sex and same-sex married couples are eligible for Social Security spousal and dependent benefits. So are some individuals in legal relationships such as civil unions and domestic partnerships. And those who were married for at least 10 years and have been divorced for at least two years also can apply.

Spouses can claim benefits based on their own work history or their spouse’s work history. They will automatically collect whichever amount is larger, but not both.

What Is the Maximum Benefit?

The allowed Social Security retirement benefit for a spouse starts at 32.5% at age 62 and gradually increases to 50% of the amount that their spouse is eligible to receive at full retirement age, which is 66 or 67 depending on their birth year. Even if the spouse delays collecting Social Security until age 70, he or she still gets only 50% of their spouse’s full amount. So, it is important to claim benefits at your full retirement age, because that will be the most you are eligible to receive.

Note that the maximum benefit for a spouse is 50% of their spouse’s benefit. That means that your spouse would have had to earn a substantial amount more over his or her working life to make that benefit higher than your own individual benefit. Thus, if both partners are eligible for relatively similar benefits, it makes more sense for each partner to file individually at full retirement age or at age 70, if possible.

Widows and widowers may be able to receive up to 100% of the deceased spouse's Social Security benefit. Social Security uses a formula for families with more than one eligible dependent to calculate maximum benefits.

Can You Switch From Your Social Security Benefit to a Spousal Benefit?

Yes. If you begin collecting your own Social Security benefits at age 62 but your spouse keeps working for another few years, you are eligible to your spouse’s benefit after they retire if it is higher than your own. Thus, your spouse will get the maximum amount and you can file for 50% of the amount your spouse would receive at full retirement age.

What if a Spouse Passes Away?

Upon the death of the spouse, the widow or widower may be eligible for a Social Security survivor benefit, which is equal to the full benefit of the deceased spouse. The surviving spouse will keep whichever of the couple’s two Social Security payments is higher.

If the surviving spouse remarries at age 60 or older, he or she can still receive the survivor benefit. However, remarrying before age 60 eliminates eligibility to collect the deceased spouse’s benefit.

When and How to Apply

The key to getting the maximum Social Security benefit is in knowing your specific benefits as individuals and in timing when you file as a couple.

You can first apply for Social Security if you are no more than three months away from age 62. But your benefits increase significantly if you wait until you reach full retirement age, which can be 66 or 67, depending on your year of birth.

To apply for spousal benefits, go to the Social Security Administration (SSA) website. There you will find links to apply online and numbers to call to apply over the phone or to make an appointment at your local Social Security office.

The website also has lots of information about how to maximize the amount you can collecting. SSA also offers an online calculator to estimate your potential spousal benefit.

About the Author

David Levine is an award-winning writer and editor whose work has been featured in the New York Times, New York Daily News, Sports Illustrated, American Heritage, U.S. News & World Report and others.

David has covered health, health insurance and health policy topics – among many others – since 2017. He earned a Bachelor's Degree in English from the University of Rochester and currently lives in Albany, New York.

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