Social Security Benefits 101: Spousal Edition

Throughout your working life, you have contributed to Social Security. Now that you have made it to retirement, it is time to begin reaping the rewards of your work. But Social Security is a complicated system. Riddled with codes, mandates, laws, and taxes it can be difficult to navigate the benefits you are able to receive.  However, good Social Security decision making can lead to increased retirement income for the rest of your life.

One of the most misunderstood aspects of social security is spousal benefits. Married couples are eligible to get social security benefits when one person was the primary or sole household earner. Let’s take a closer look at how these benefits can help you.

Eligibility Requirements

In order to receive spousal benefits, a couple of boxes need to be checked.

  • You must be at least 62 years old. This is the same age that would allow you to collect your own social security benefits as well.
  • Your spouse must be actively claiming their own retirement benefit before you can claim spousal privileges on their work record. Even if you are at retirement age and your spouse has not claimed their benefit, you cannot receive spousal benefits until they begin to withdraw their own.

Benefits Basics

When planning for the number of benefits you will receive, your first step is to look at the primary earner’s work record. Your spousal benefits can be as much as half of the amount the higher earner is receiving.

Let’s say at your full retirement age you are entitled to $1,000 per month in social security benefits. Your spouse, who was a stay-at-home parent and earned a smaller income would be eligible to receive a $500 monthly benefit.

A family maximum does exist for social security benefits. Usually, this cap is at 150% to 188% of the worker’s full retirement benefit. This means that if another family member such as a child qualifies to receive benefits, the spousal benefits may be lower.

The amount of the eligible payment can shift depending upon the spouse’s age and additional household income.  

Two Income Household

Many families rely on the salary of both partners to sustain their livelihood. It is important to know that your personal social security benefits will be paid before spousal benefits would kick in. The administration would use their calculations to determine your benefit based on your own work record first.

If your benefit is less than half of your spouse’s, your spousal benefit will be used to make up the difference. Here is an example: A couple, both who have reached full retirement age, receive both $1,000 and $300 respectively. The spouse who receives the $300 from their own work record would also get an extra $200 in spousal benefits in order to get half of their spouse’s benefit.

It is important to note that spousal benefits are only available if the amount of money received is less than half of the larger earner. For example, if one spouse received $2,000 per month and the other gets $1,300 no spousal benefits would be granted since the $1,300 is more than half of the amount of the higher earner.  

The Numbers Matter

Withdrawing money from social security prior to your full retirement age can cause some complications in terms of spousal benefits. These percentage decreases are outlined by the IRS as:

  • 8.33% decrease per year for each month before reaching full retirement age, up to 36 months early
  • 5% decrease for each month beyond the 36 from above.

Knowing when you can get your benefits is half of the battle. Be sure to wait until full retirement age if possible to avoid running into these decreases in payments.

How To Apply

The IRS makes it easy to apply for your spousal social security benefits by filling out this online form. The SSA makes it simple and straightforward for you to start getting the benefits that you qualify for.

Understanding spousal benefits can be a game-changer for many families in retirement. Take a close look at the process and see how these benefits could work for you and your family.

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