Woman at a desk with documents. Text: See how your spouse or ex can benefit your Social Security – without their help!

See how your spouse or ex can benefit your Social Security – without their help!

If you’re currently or previously married, one powerful Social Security feature you need to know about is the Spousal Benefit. More and more retirees are beginning to take advantage of this incredible financial tool. There are still many who don’t fully understand it or have never heard of it.  Make no mistake; this is a married couple’s secret Social Security weapon! Used properly, this benefit can generate thousands in extra Social Security income, all before even reaching age 70.


What is a Spousal Benefit?

The Spousal Benefit allows one spouse, at their Full Retirement Age, to receive a benefit equal to 50% of their spouse’s – or ex-spouse’s – Social Security benefit amount. While this may seem confusing, it’s actually pretty straightforward to illustrate with an example.

A chart showing the Spousal Benefit amounts per age.

Let’s consider married couple Cris and Lee.

They are both the same age and both claim their benefits at their Full Retirement Age of 66. At Cris’s Full Retirement Age of 66, his Social Security benefit is $2,000. At Lee’s Full Retirement Age of 66, her Social Security benefit is $500.

Cris claims his benefit at age 66 of $2,000. This means Lee can file for a Spousal Benefit and receive 50% of Cris’s $2,000. Because Lee can claim a Spousal Benefit, she doubled her monthly Social Security income from $500 to $1,000 per month. This Spousal Benefit would be in place of her own monthly amount of $500. It would not impact Cris’s amount. He will still receive $2,000 per month at age 66. 

Because Lee can claim a Spousal Benefit, she increased her annual Social Security income by an additional $6,000 per year. Without it, Lee could only claim her own benefit of $500 per month, which would be $6,000 for the year. But because Lee can claim a Spousal Benefit of $1,000 per month, she doubled her annual Social Security income to $12,000 per year.  For example, it would generate an additional $500 per month ($1,000 – $500), $6,000 for the year ($500 x 12 months). 

Key points to understand. 

First, in order to file for a Spousal Benefit, your spouse must have already filed for their Social Security benefits. Additionally, you can claim anytime between 62 and your Full Retirement Age.  Most of today’s retirees have a Full Retirement Age of 66 or 67. However, filing for a Spousal Benefit before your Full Retirement Age will reduce the amount you will receive.

The following chart shows:

A chart showing Cris and Lee's example.

Most importantly, by filing for a Spousal Benefit before Full Retirement Age, you are now locked into it for life. It will permanently replace your own Social Security benefit. By waiting until Full Retirement Age, you can file for a Spousal Benefit, then switch to your own later on. This allows you to continue delaying and growing your own Social Security benefit, while receiving income from Social Security from a Spousal Benefit.

One other aspect to consider is that the size of your Spousal Benefit is not impacted by when your spouse claims Social Security.

If Cris claims early, what does that do to the Spousal Benefit?

In the previous example, what happens if Cris, instead of claiming at age 66, claims his benefit at age 62? Because he claimed his benefit prior to his Full Retirement Age, his benefit is reduced to only $1,500 per month. Lee likes her job and decides to work until her Full Retirement Age of 66. Because Lee continued to work, she decided to claim her Social Security benefits when she retires at age 66. Lee retires and claims her Social Security benefits at age 66, and she still receives a monthly benefit of $1,000.

You might think that because Cris claimed his at 62, and it was reduced to $1,500, that when Lee claimed hers at 66, she would only receive a Spousal Benefit amount equal to $750 per month. But the fact that Cris claimed his benefit early has no impact on the amount Lee receives. Because Lee waited until her Full Retirement Age to claim, she is still entitled to 50% of Cris’s Full Retirement Age benefit. That’s $2,000 or $1,000 per month ($2,000 x 50%). 

Full Retirement Age

The amount of the Spousal Benefit is based on the other spouse’s Full Retirement Age amount. This is regardless of when that spouse actually claims their own benefit. The spouse with the bigger benefit can claim it prior to their Full Retirement Age or after. The Spousal Benefit will still be based on their Full Retirement Age benefit amount.

In this example, even if Lee never qualified for her own Social Security – her monthly Social Security amount is $0 – Lee would still be able to claim a Spousal Benefit.  She will receive a monthly benefit equal to $1,000 if she waited until her Full Retirement Age to claim it. 

Consider if your spouse claimed Social Security as early as possible, at age 62, and received a reduced Social Security benefit. At Full Retirement Age, you could file a Spousal Benefit and receive 50% of what your partner would have received in Social Security benefits had he or she waited until Full Retirement Age. This allows you to receive a bigger amount than if it was based off of your spouse’s reduced Social Security benefit. 

Divorced spouses, in many cases, can also file.

The criteria for this includes that 1) you were married to your former spouse for at least 10 years and 2) you are not re-married. If you meet these two criteria and the Spousal Benefit is greater than your own benefit, then you can claim a Spousal Benefit and receive a monthly benefit equal up to 50% of your ex-spouse’s Full Retirement Age amount.

If you have been divorced for at least 2 years, it gets even better: your former spouse only has to be is eligible to receive Social Security. In other words, if your ex-spouse is age 62 or older, even if he or she hasn’t filed for their own Social Security benefits, you could still claim a Spousal Benefit. Again, this doesn’t impact your former spouse’s Social Security benefit at all. In fact, you are not even required to notify him or her that you are doing it!

Social Security’s Spousal benefit is an incredible feature, and it is important that you are aware of how it works, so you get every dollar of benefit you are entitled to.

This is only a small sample of the ways that married and divorced couples can use this secret weapon!  It’s unconventional, but can generate thousands or tens of thousands of additional dollars. While will dive into these strategies in future articles, feel free to leave any of your current questions in the comments section below.

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