social security

Social Security Spousal Benefits FAQs

Answers to some of the most commonly asked questions financial advisers get on spousal benefits, including when to take them and how benefits for ex-spouses work.

Social Security is incredibly complicated, and it gets even more complex when there are two of you. How and when each of you takes benefits can affect your income as a couple by hundreds of dollars a month, yet, according to Employee Benefit Research Institute's 2018 Retirement Confidence Survey, only 23% of workers actually try to maximize their benefits by planning when to claim Social Security.

If you’re among the 77% who haven’t planned ahead, I want to inspire you to take action. Because the rules regarding Social Security are so complex, I strongly suggest you talk to an expert about your particular circumstances, but to get you started, I’d like to answer a few questions I often hear:

How much can I receive in spousal benefits?

You can get a maximum of 50% of the amount your spouse would receive in benefits at his or her full retirement age. You cannot get half of your spouse’s benefits plus your own, so it only makes sense to take spousal benefits if yours are less than half of your spouse’s.

When should I take Social Security spousal benefits?

As with other Social Security retirement benefits, you can begin taking them at age 62*, but if you do so, you will receive them at a permanently reduced rate, which is a percentage based on the number of months up to your full retirement age. If you wait to take spousal benefits until your full retirement age, you can receive 50% of the amount your spouse would receive at his or her full retirement age, even if he or she took benefits early at a reduced rate.

Waiting past your full retirement age will not net you more in spousal benefits.

How can I determine my full retirement age?

Just plug your birthdate into Kiplinger’s retirement age calculator. Or, the Social Security Administration website has a calculator here.

What happens to our benefits when one of us dies?

As a surviving spouse, you can receive 100% of your deceased spouse’s benefits once you reach your full retirement age, or reduced benefits as early as age 60. If you had been taking the 50% spousal benefit, it would stop and you would begin receiving survivor’s benefits. Again, if you claim benefits — including survivor’s benefits — before reaching your full retirement age, they will be reduced and may be subject to the earnings test.

Your benefits could also be reduced by the Government Pension Offset (GPO) if you receive a retirement or disability pension from a federal, state or local government based on your work in which you did not pay Social Security taxes.

I’ve heard I can collect on my ex-spouse’s benefits. How does that work?

If you were married for at least 10 years, are not remarried and both you and your ex-spouse are at least 62, you can file for spousal benefits. It does not matter whether your ex has remarried, and the fact that you file for spousal benefits will not impact your ex-spouse's benefits.

A few notes: The spousal benefit you’d collect from your ex must be greater than your own; your ex-spouse does not have to be collecting benefits for you to begin; and once again, if you begin collecting at age 62, your benefits will be permanently reduced. For more, read Senior Marriage and Social Security: Rules to Know.

What’s a restricted application?

Some people are allowed to take a spousal benefit while delaying their own benefits (and letting them grow to their maximum amount) until age 70. For example, if you are eligible, you could take half of your spouse’s benefit, let your own grow until you are 70, and then switch to your larger benefit.

You may only file a restricted application if you were born before Jan. 2, 1954**. You also must have reached your full retirement age, and your spouse must already be collecting his or her own benefit. For more, read Restricted Application Social Security Strategy Is on Its Way Out.

As you can see, I needed to add footnotes to even the “simplest” questions, and there are many more exceptions and permutations that can affect your benefits. Even so, I hope I’ve answered a few of your questions, and more so, inspired you to plan ahead with your spouse so you can both get the most out of your Social Security in retirement.

*You may be able to take benefits earlier if you are caring for dependent children.

**There are some exceptions for people who are disabled or caring for dependent children.

About the Author

Ken Moraif, CFP®

CEO and Senior Adviser, Retirement Planners of America

Ken Moraif, CFP, is CEO and senior adviser at Retirement Planners of America, a Dallas-based wealth management and investment firm with over $4.3 billion in AUM and serving over 8,000 households (as of May 2019). He is also the host of the radio show "Money Matters with Ken Moraif," which has offered listeners retirement, investing and personal finance advice since 1996.

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