The Married Couples Social Security Playbook

Social Security is usually thought of in terms of an individual’s retirement benefit. But it’s equally important to understand the benefits of Social Security for married couples. Whether you’re a Baby Boomer spouse with limited work history because you stayed home to raise the kids, or a married couple who discovered during COVID that a happy family doesn’t require two incomes, here are Social Security Spousal rules you need to know.


Getting 50% of Your Spouse’s Benefit

The Social Security Spousal benefit gives you up to 50% of the amount your spouse is entitled to at their Full Retirement Age (FRA). You can receive the Spousal benefit if it’s more than you would receive based on your own work history.

To receive the full 50%, you have to have reached YOUR Full Retirement Age (FRA) and your spouse has to have filed to begin receiving their benefits. If you begin receiving the Spousal benefit before your FRA you’ll get a permanently reduced Spousal benefit.


You Can’t Double Dip

If you qualify for the Spousal benefit, you cannot also receive a benefit based on your own work history. You get one or the other, whichever is larger. You don’t get to double dip.


You Can Switch Benefits

Even though you can’t double dip, it’s possible to begin with your own benefit and later switch to the Spousal benefit. I have a married couple client who did this. The wife’s earnings history was limited and her Social Security benefit was less than half of her husband’s benefit. But the husband worked until age 70 before filing. So, at 63, the wife began taking her benefit based on her own earnings history and then switched to the Spousal benefit when her husband filed at age 70.


There’s No Advantage in Waiting Past Your Full Retirement Age

When you receive Social Security based on your own earnings record, you get the maximum amount at age 70. If you continue to work past your Full Retirement Age (FRA) you receive delayed credits which increase your Social Security check by 8% per year between FRA and age 70. It’s a bonus for waiting to receive your Social Security benefit.

But delayed credits don’t apply to the Spousal benefit. What you receive is based on the amount your spouse is eligible for at their FRA, not at age 70. At YOUR Full Retirement Age (FRA) you receive 100% of the Spousal benefit, so there’s no reason to wait past your FRA.


You Can’t Claim a Spouse’s Social Security Disability

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSI) can only be claimed if you’ve paid into Social Security and you have a qualifying medical condition. You can’t receive disability benefits based on someone else’s record.


You May be Eligible to Receive a Spousal Benefit if You Are Divorced

Even if you’re divorced, it’s possible to receive a Social Security Spousal benefit based on your ex’s work history if:

  • Your marriage lasted 10 years or longer
  • You’ve been divorced at least two years
  • You have not remarried
  • You are age 62 or older
  • The Spousal benefit is more than you would receive based on your work history
  • Your ex is entitled to Social Security retirement benefits


The same spousal rules apply:

  • The maximum benefit is 50%
  • Your benefit will be less than 50% if you claim before your Full Retirement Age (FRA)
  • Your Spousal benefit will not include any delayed credits earned by your ex
  • You have to be at least 62 to claim the ex-spouse benefit


If You’ve Remarried

If you’ve remarried, you’re no longer eligible to claim a Spousal benefit based on your ex’s work history. But when you’ve been married to your new spouse for at least one year, you become eligible for the Spousal benefit on your current spouse’s earnings record.

If you’ve been married more than once, both marriages lasted at least 10 years and both ended in divorce, then Social Security will look at your earnings history as well as that of each ex-spouse and your Spousal benefit will be the largest one possible.


There’s Also a Survivor’s Benefit

If your spouse dies before you, you’re eligible for the Survivor benefit. If you’re receiving the Spousal benefit (50% of what your spouse was entitled to at their Full Retirement Age) you can switch to the Survivor benefit (100% of what your spouse was receiving at the time of their death), but you will lose the Spousal benefit. And, you have to be at YOUR Full Retirement Age (FRA) to receive the 100%. Claim the Survivor benefit before your FRA and you will receive a permanently reduced amount.

If you’re 60 or older and remarry there’s no effect on your survivor benefit. Remarry before 60 and you lose eligibility for the survivor benefit from the previous marriage. You can regain your eligibility based on the prior marriage if the current marriage ends through death, divorce or annulment.

In the event you’re widowed twice, you may be entitled to Survivor benefits based on the work records of both late spouses, but you can only collect one survivor benefit at a time.

The same rules apply to ex-spouses and the Survivor benefit, as long as the marriage lasted at least 10 years.

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