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How Does the Social Security Spousal Benefit Work?

Posted by David Ghiorso, CPA, January 6, 2017

In retirement, Social Security benefits will make up an important part of your overall income. Whether you’re married or divorced, you might be eligible for spousal benefits. On the other hand, it might be your spouse or ex-spouse who draws spousal benefits from your work record. You might also be widowed. Whatever the situation, it’s important to understand how your personal details and decisions can affect Social Security spousal benefits.

Are you, your spouse, or ex-spouse eligible for spousal benefits?

You must have reached age 62, and be married for at least ten years, before filing for spousal benefits, and you cannot receive these benefits until your spouse has filed for their own benefits.

If you’re divorced, but you were married at least ten years, you can receive spousal benefits whether or not your former spouse has actually begun receiving their own checks.

How much is the Social Security spousal benefit?

The answer to this question can get quite complicated, and only your financial planner or Social Security representative can give you an precise answer. The easiest answer, for purposes of this blog, is that spousal benefits amount to 50 percent of your spouse’s (or former spouse’s) benefit amount at Full Retirement Age (FRA). However, if you file for spousal benefits before your own FRA, your checks will be reduced by a percentage based on age.

Can you switch to your own benefit amount later?

Due to a new law that took effect in November of 2015, those born on or after January 2, 1954 cannot restrict their own application while receiving spousal benefits in the meantime. When you file for benefits, you will automatically receive either your own benefit or your spousal benefit, whichever is higher. But you cannot switch to a different filing status later.

What if you’re widowed?

You could collect a survivor’s benefit as early as age 60. In this case, you can file for the survivor benefit and then switch to your own (higher) benefit later on.

If you and your spouse are already receiving Social Security benefits, and then one of you passes away, the surviving spouse will continue to receive that larger of your two benefits (but not both).

This is just a summary of Social Security benefits for spouses. Because the rules can get complicated depending upon your exact situation, it’s important to work closely with a financial planner to make the most of your benefits. Give us a call if you have any questions, and we’ll be happy to help.

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