Social Security spousal benefits are pretty easy to figure out compared to most of Social Security’s complicated rules. Even if you’ve never worked a day in your life and and didn’t pay into the system, you may still be eligible to receive benefits under your spouse’s work record. Because you, by way of supporting your spouse while they were working, you paid into the system anyway, right?

You’re eligible for spousal benefits if you fall into one of the below three categories:

1) Current Spouse

You can claim benefits under your current spouse if your spousal benefit is higher than the benefit you’d receive on your own. The SSA will give you the higher of the two. You must be married to your current spouse for at least 1 year prior to receiving benefits under their earnings record.

2) Widowed Spouse

You can claim benefits under your deceased spouse as long as you were married for at least 9 months. You can also claim benefits at 60, 2 years prior to regular early Social Security.

3) Ex-spouse / Divorced

You can claim benefits under your ex-spouse as long as you were married for 10 years and didn’t get remarried before age 60.

The rules are a bit different for each category but all are clear to understand. Let’s dig a little deeper into each category of Social Security spousal benefits.

Current Spouse 

You’re eligible for current Social Security spousal benefits if:

  • You are currently married
  • You’re at least 62
  • You must be married for at least 1 year
  • Your spouse is currently receiving Social Security (yes, the restricted option is closed)
  • Your spousal benefit is greater than your own benefit

You may have had friends that pulled a Social Security maneuver call “file-and-suspend.” In November of 2015, Congress passed the BiPartisan Budget Act of 2015 which brought the ax down on this strategy. This strategy was used to maximize Social Security benefits. One spouse could file for Social Security at full retirement age and then immediately suspend their benefits. Then the other spouse would file for spousal benefits under the suspended spouses benefit amount. This would allow for one person to collect spousal benefits while the other earned delayed retirement credits.

Here’s an example of how the file-and-suspend strategy works using couple Bob and Diane:

Both Bob and Diane are 66 years old. Bob made much more money during his career because Diane stayed home to raise their awesome family. Bob files for Social Security at 66 but immediately suspends his $2,000 monthly benefit. Then Diane files for Social Security spousal benefits under Bob’s account which is suspended and growing at 8% per year. Diane gets $1,000 per month from age 66 to 70 (1/2 of Bob’s full retirement amount). Then Bob files at age 70 to get a much higher monthly amount – 8% per year more for each year until age 70. This is how this strategy used to work.

The government said fuhgeddaboudit! This means people will no longer be able to file then suspend their benefits and have their spouse claim Social Security spousal benefits under their account. You could potentially miss out on $50,000 in “extra” benefits. This is no longer a viable strategy unless you were born prior to January 2, 1954, in which case you’re grandfathered in.

You can no longer use file-and-suspend or restricted options with the passing of the BiPartisan Budget Act of 2015. The main thing is you have to be actively claiming Social Security for your spouse to be able to claim Social Security spousal benefits. All benefits under your account (like the spousal benefit) are suspended if you suspend your benefits. No more suspending but letting your spouse get paid under your account. See below for more information regarding the strategies that are no longer in use.

Widowed Spouse 

You’re eligible for widowed Social Security spousal benefits if:

  • Your spouse is deceased (not as a result of your own doing)
  • You’re at least 60
  • You must have been married for at least 9 months
  • Getting remarried prior to age 60 will affect your survivor benefits

The amount you receive as a widowed spouse depends on a few different factors. Anytime there is a decision point, there is a chance to maximize the benefit amount you receive. The two main variables that determine your payout as a survivor are:

1) The amount your deceased spouse was receiving. 

2) The age at which you take benefits. 

You can’t file for both survivor benefits and benefits under your own record simultaneously. Wouldn’t that be great, though? No, unfortunately there is no loophole I can show you to do this. But there is another way to maximize your Social Security spousal benefit. It almost always makes sense to file under your deceased spouse’s benefit early on (even at 60 sometimes) and then switch to your own benefit at age 70. Now there are a bunch of different ways this could play out and it makes sense to run the numbers. Your deceased spouse could have been receiving the max benefit amount and your earnings record is abysmal. Then you’d want to stay under your deceased spouse’s benefit amount.

What happens more often nowadays plays out in the following example:

Let’s say Diane is 58 and her husband Bob is 66. Bob just started collecting benefits at full retirement age. After being retired for a month, Bob goes toes up after finding out about Diane’s torrid love affair with the neighborhood pool boy. Bob’s benefit amount was $2,000 per month. Diane is eligible to claim survivor benefits at age 60 as long as she doesn’t get remarried to the pool boy. But she doesn’t get $2,000 per month. At age 60, Diane’s Social Security spousal benefit will be 71.5% of $2,000 or $1,430 per month.

Diane has a pretty good earnings record. She was a high-powered corporate attorney for Dewey, Cheatem, and Howe. Her full retirement benefit amount under her own earnings record will be $2,500 per month with the amount increasing up to the cap beyond her full retirement age. In Diane’s case, she takes the survivor spousal benefit at age 60, then continues to accumulate under her own earnings record before filing for her own at age 70.

In many cases it makes sense to file under your deceased spouse’s Social Security, then switch to your own Social Security later in life.

There are pros and cons to filing for survivor benefits early. The pro is that you get to receive money earlier. The main con is that your benefit amount is reduced.

Know how claiming early affects your benefit amount by following the chart below.

You can also access this spreadsheet through Google Docs.

Divorced Spouse 

You may be eligible to file under your divorced spouse’s earnings record if:

  • You were married at least 10 years
  • You didn’t remarry or if you did, you 2nd marriage has since ended
  • You’re at least 62 (if 62, you must be divorced for at lest 2 years)
  • Your own Social Security amount would be less than your ex’s spousal benefit
  • Your ex is eligible for Social Security (they don’t need to actually receive it)

You can claim spousal benefits under your ex even if they’re not currently receiving Social Security. You can even make a claim without their knowledge – no signatures or other paperwork required on the ex’s part.

If you’re still working, as many 62 year old divorcees are, you’re still held to the earnings test. Your benefit can be reduced if you earn more than the cap but not to worry, your benefits will be recalculated and you’ll receive more later in life. It’s simply a temporary reduction.

How much will I get as a divorcee? You’re entitled to 50% of your ex’s benefit amount if you’re full retirement age. You can claim spousal benefits at 62 but your benefit amount will be permanently reduced if you do this. You won’t get more than 50% of your ex-spouse’s full retirement amount – delayed credits do not matter here.

Here’s an example of how divorced spousal benefit could play out:

After 11 years of marriage, Diane finds out that Bob is cheating on her and subsequently files for divorce when Bob is 66 and Diane is 60. Diane is happy to get rid of Bob because she’s been looking elsewhere too. Diane is now 61 and has a boyfriend. Diane continues to work, doesn’t get married to her boyfriend, and files for ex-spousal Social Security at age 62. Because she files for Social Security at 62, she’ll receive about 32.5% of her ex-husband’s Primary Insurance Amount or full retirement age benefit (If she waited until her full retirement age, she would get 50% of her ex-husbands full benefit).

Diane is only getting about $650 per month in Social Security benefits because she filed early and Bob’s full retirement amount is $2,000. That’s okay though. Diane wanted to file as early as possible because she’s going to get married to her boyfriend in the coming year and her current benefit amount will stop once she’s married. Now Diane marries her boyfriend and she goes to file spousal benefits under him but is denied. She didn’t realize she’d have to wait a year prior to receiving spousal benefits under her new man.

A year passes. Diane is now 64 years old and is eligible to file under her new spouse. She claims benefit under her new spouse until she is 70, then switches to her own benefit which is much more. As a recap, Diane gets paid $650 a month when she was 62, missed getting paid anything when she was 63, and gets paid $800 per month at 64 (assumptions made for her new spouses primary insurance amount and her full retirement age). Diane then files under her own record at 70 and gets paid $2,600 per month. (Ok, maybe spousal benefits are more complicated than I initially let on, sorry).

A couple of other notes:

1) If your divorced spouse has been divorced twice, both ex-spouses can claim under his earnings record as long as they were married to the spouse for 10 years and follow the other requirements. There is no race to see which ex-spouse files first. Social Security doesn’t care…they have all the money in the world!

2) Filing for ex-spouse benefits doesn’t hurt the other spouse’s Social Security payment. If you’re remarried and don’t want your ex-spouse ruining Social Security for you, don’t worry about it. They can do nothing to harm your Social Security whether they file ex-spousal benefits early, late, or not at all.

3) You’re not going to find spousal benefit amounts your eligible for on your mySSA account online. You can figure it out pretty easily if you’re filing at full spousal retirement age – it’s 50% of the main spouse’s Social Security at full retirement age. It can be as low as 32.5% of the main spouse’s full retirement age benefit if you claim spousal benefits at 62.

That was a pretty good rundown of the three categories of spousal benefits. Now let’s get into some other spousal issues.

Get Around Deeming For Couples

Deeming is that dirty word the Social Security uses to check to see which benefit is higher and not let you take a lower benefit amount than you’re eligible for.

For example, Diane can’t apply for her own benefit at 62 if your spousal benefit is higher. The Social Security Administration has some nerdy accounting guy sitting in Baltimore checking to see if you’re claiming a lower benefit than you’re allowed. Then they simply reject it and tell you to take the higher benefit amount.

But wait, there’s is a way around this. The lower earner should apply for benefits prior to the higher earner. So if Diane is the lower earner, she should file for whatever benefit (we’re using her own record) she wants and then Bob can come after her and file for his benefits. This way Social Security will be not catch it – and by the way this is totally legal white hat stuff here.

Then when Diane is ready to go under the spousal benefits, she just reaches out to the SSA to do this. It’s just the process you have to go through to make sure you’re following all the rules properly and you’re maximizing the amount you will get from Social Security.

Maximizing Your Social Security Spousal Benefit

Social Security Claiming Strategy

I said at the beginning of this post that Social Security spousal benefits aren’t that complicated. They really aren’t that complicated when you’re comparing them to other Social Security rules. What can be complicated is figuring out how to maximize your spousal benefit. I gave you some scenarios above so you can see how the numbers play out.

There is no blanket rule for everyone that says you should take spousal benefits like this or like that. Your specific scenario is complex and you should seek a fee-only financial advisor or other smart financial whiz to make sure you make the correct decision. This is something that, if claimed optimally, could put thousands of dollars into your pocket over your retirement.

That being said there are some general rules in this post that everyone should follow. Like filing for Social Security under your ex-spouse’s record at age 62 if you know you’re getting remarried soon. What’s the harm in collecting a little bit of Social Security prior to not being allowed to collect once you’re remarried? None.

It also makes sense to time things just right so that you and your spouse can maximize the amount you receive from Social Security. For example, the lower-earning spouse shouldn’t file under their own benefit before full retirement age. They’ll do better if they file for the spousal benefit, then switch to their own benefit later on or after full retirement age.

There are many handy calculators you can use to figure out how much Social Security spousal benefits you will get. I reviewed 6 free online calculators that you can use to estimate how much you’ll receive. They all have their pros and cons and all of them use some assumptions to get you a number. As always, if you have questions about your benefits, put your email in the call out box below then reply to my introductory email OR simply comment below.