How do Spousal Social Security Benefits Work?

Spousal Social Security benefits are all too often overlooked by retiring couples. This additional income stream can make a significant difference when retirement time arrives. This article will outline what those benefits are, how to qualify for them, and what some of the limitations are on your strategies for collecting them.

When an individual files for retirement benefits, their spouse may be eligible for benefits based on their partner’s earnings. This spousal benefit can add up to as much as half of their partner’s ‘primary insurance amount’ -- this being the amount a person receives at their normal retirement age. This benefit can be helpful if you or your spouse have not worked enough to pay into Social Security and are ineligible to claim benefits. 

To qualify for spousal benefits, you should meet the following criterion:

  • Your spouse is already collecting retirement benefits.
  • You have been married for at least one year.
  • You are at least 62, unless you are caring for a child who is under the age of 16 or disabled.
  • If you are divorced and have been for at least two years you can apply if the marriage lasted for ten or more years.

You or your spouse’s work record is irrelevant in these cases. Whoever has the lower retirement benefit will receive a higher amount once the benefits start. But what is important in most cases is the age of the applicant. To receive the maximum benefit of 50% of the spousal benefit they should at least be 62 years old. The scale of earned benefits can go as low as 32%, which again, is tied to you or your spouse’s age at the time of application.

It is also worth noting that there were changes made to this program following the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, primarily affecting those who were born after 1954. This act eliminated a few strategies that couples used to maximize spousal benefits. The first strategy was known as a “restricted application.” This would happen after a spouse had filed for Social Security benefits upon reaching “normal” retirement age and the other spouse filed their regular benefits. Following that they would place a restricted application on the spousal benefits, waiting to collect on them at age 70, when the benefits would be maximized.

The other strategy that has been nullified by the Bipartisan Budget Act is “file and suspend.” Similar to restricted applications, it involved one spouse waiting until 70 to collect on benefits. If the spouse who was the main beneficiary wanted to wait until they were 70 to collect on their benefits it was possible to do so, while the other spouse could collect on the 50% of those spousal benefits then that was an option. Just like the restricted application, this would result in a maximized amount of money at age 70, with both spouses reaping the rewards for their patience. A Social Security Disability Attorney in Birmingham, or wherever you live, can usually help you fill out the application or appeal any decisions.

Now that these more creative options have been removed, and knowing what is allowable under the law, it remains essential to keep in mind the ways that these spousal benefits can still work to provide a useful income stream for you and your spouse. If, for example, one spouse were to earn $1500 for their monthly benefits, the other could bring in $750 extra for the family. Depending on you or your spouse’s work history and your knowledge of what your retirement will bring in monetarily, it is highly advisable to look into these benefits as an option.

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