FAQ: Social Security spousal benefits

I get a huge number of questions from readers about Social Security’s spousal and survivor benefits. Rightly so, because these are incredibly important features of Social Security that can create powerful amplifying effects that boost lifetime benefits.

This page answers the most frequently-asked questions on spousal and survivor benefits. Please note that, due to the volume of mail that I receive on these subjects, it’s not possible for me to respond to personal questions on spousal and survivor benefits. If you can’t find the answer to your question here, visit your local Social Security office or call their toll free number for help. You may also be able to find what you’re looking for at the Social Security website’s FAQ section, or by contacting Ask Mary Jane, a free service provided by the National Committee to Protect Social Security & Medicare. AARP offers a searchable database of frequent questions on Social Security. Additionally, please visit the main RetirementRevised Social Security Resource Guide for links to other valuable resources on this subject.

When can I start receiving a spousal benefit?

As a spouse, you are entitled to receive the greater of your own benefit or half of your spouse’s benefit.

If you have reached your full retirement age (FRA), you can choose to receive only your spouse’s benefits and continue accruing delayed retirement credits on your own Social Security record. You could then file for your own benefits at a later date and receive a higher monthly benefit based on the effect of delayed retirement credits. However, a spouse cannot elect to receive spousal benefits below his/her retirement age and later switch to her own benefits.

Spousal benefits are reduced for those who file before their own FRA. For example, a spouse whose FRA is 66 could receive 35 percent of the worker’s unreduced benefit at age 62. The amount of the benefit increases at later ages up to the maximum of 50 percent at the FRA.

One exception: if a spouse is taking care of a child who is under age 16 or disabled and gets Social Security benefits on your record, your spouse gets full benefits, regardless of age.

The Social Security Administration website offers this example:

Mary Ann qualifies for a retirement benefit of $250 and a spouse’s benefit of $400. At her full retirement age, she will receive her own $250 retirement benefit, and we will add $150 from her spouse’s benefit, for a total of $400. If she takes her retirement benefit before her full retirement age, both amounts will be reduced.

Can I file for spousal benefits if my spouse (the higher earner) isn’t yet at the full retirement age? If so, how much will my spousal benefits be reduced? Assuming your spouse has already filed for benefits and your full retirement benefit is less than 50 percent of your spouse’s full benefit, you can file for the spouse’s benefits even though your spouse is not yet at the FRA. The amount of reduction is based on your age at the time you claim the benefit.

Can I file for spousal benefits if my spouse isn’t receiving Social Security? The answer is no – with a big caveat. Let’s say the higher-earning spouse wants to continue delaying taking benefits past his or her FRA. The higher earner could do what is called a file-and-suspend.

Here’s how the “file-and-suspend” works:

1. The higher-earning spouse files for benefits at his FRA but immediately files a notice to suspend benefits.

2. The lower-earning spouse elects to receive spousal benefits

3. The higher-earning spouse continues to accrue higher payments for whatever point he elects to begin receiving benefits.

Although this approach is kosher, it only makes sense if the spousal benefit would be higher than the individual’s own benefit. The result can be much higher combined lifetime benefits for the couple.

Can my wife start collecting based on my account at age 62 and then switch to her own account at age 66? No, it’s not possible to switch if she files on her own account before her full retirement age.

If my wife (age 62) elects early retirement and collects Social Security on her own account, will her spousal benefit be reduced when I (currently age 64) retire at 66 and begin collecting benefits then? Social Security will pay a person’s own benefit first, before paying the spouse’s benefit. Your wife will not receive the full spouse’s rate because of her own benefit level, which is reduced as a result of filing early. The Social Security Administration will add the spousal benefit to her own benefit to arrive at her new, higher benefit amount.

Here’s an example, provided by the SSA:

Let’s say the wife’s Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) is $1,000. She files for her own benefit at 62 and receives a reduced retirement benefit of $750.

Her husband has a PIA of $2500. She is eligible to receive one-half of his PIA at her full retirement age. $2500 (his PIA); divided by two, that equals $1,250 (This is the full spouse’s rate). We will subtract the $1250 (the full spouse’s rate) – $1000 (her PIA)= $250.

Social Security will add that $250 to her reduced retirement benefit amount of $750 and her new benefit amount at full retirement age will be $1,000, which is less than the full spouse’s rate.

If my wife has not worked fulltime most of his or her life, can the spouse qualify for Medicare at age 65, and does she get half of my Social Security? If you are at least 62 years old, your wife becomes eligible at age 65 for Medicare based on your employment record. She could receive the free Part A hospitalization coverage, and pay for Part B medical coverage. On Social Security, she would be eligible to receive 50 percent of your Social Security benefit at her own FRA. You can apply for Medicare online here.

Can my wife receive spousal benefits once I reach full retirement age even though she will continue to work? If your wife’s full Social Security benefit is less than 50 percent of your full benefit, she may be eligible for spousal benefits on your record (assuming that you already have filed for benefits). Since she is still working, there is a limit on how much she can earn and collect all benefits payable.

My wife and I both just turned 66 and both decided to wait till 70 to collect. If the lower earner elects to receive spousal benefits and delays collecting his own benefit until 70, would this spousal benefit reduce his benefit? Do I have to file and suspend or do I do nothing but file for the spousal benefit?

Yes, you can file solely for the Spousal Benefit since you indicate that your wife has already filed and suspended – you can then both file for your own retirement benefits at age 70. You don’t need to (and should not) file and suspend – only file for the Spousal Benefit at this time.

Also – your decision to file for the Spousal Benefit would have no impact on your future retirement benefit (or your wife’s) since you both are past your Full Retirement age (FRA) of 66.

What is the survivor benefit? When a spouse dies, the survivor is entitled to receive the greater of his or her own benefit or 100 percent of the spouse’s benefit, including any cost-of-living increases earned along the way. Again, if the higher-earning spouse delays filing until the FRA or beyond, then the surviving spouse’s lifetime benefits will be increased substantially.

Maximizing the survivor benefit is an especially important consideration for women. Men not only tend to be the higher wage earners but also tend to die at younger ages than women. In many cases, this means that a delayed filing by a man can be a critical way to boost lifetime retirement security for older women-a time of life when overall income can decline sharply.

In 2007, Social Security provided 90 percent or more of income for 47 percent of all elderly unmarried women who were receiving benefits.

At what age should I apply? You can receive full survivor benefits when you reach your own FRA (typically 66). You can receive survivor benefits as young as age 60, but the benefit will be reduced. According to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, widow(er)s are guaranteed at least 71.5% of their deceased spouse’s Full Retirement Age benefit if they claim the survivor benefit before their Full Retirement Age, and at least 82.5% if they claim the survivor benefit after their Full Retirement Age.

Can a widower receive his late spouse’s benefit if the spouse’s benefit was tied to a spouse from an earlier marriage?

No. Your potential entitlement to a widower’s benefit is limited to your spouse’s Social Security record only. The Social Security rules don’t permit you to file for a benefit based on the work record of a spouse from an earlier marriage.

How do I apply for a survivor benefit? If you were already receiving a spousal benefit, report the spouse’s death to the Social Security Administration, and they will change your payments to survivors benefits. If you were receiving benefits based on your own work, you might be eligible for a higher survivor benefits, depending on your spouse’s work record. You would need to complete an application to switch to survivor’s benefits, and supply an original or certified copy of the death certificate to the Social Security Administration.

Can a file for spousal or survivor benefits from a divorced spouse?

In many cases, yes. Social Security’s rules require that you are currently single, and have been married to your ex at least ten years; at least 62 years old, which is the minimum Social Security eligibility age; and not already receiving a benefit greater than the divorced spouse’s benefit.

You can file for spousal benefits even if your ex isn’t receiving his or her own benefits – so long as your divorce has been final for two years. Eligibility for an ex’s benefit is lost if you remarry, and you can’t file for benefits on your new spouse’s earning record until you’ve been married to that person at least one year.

SocialSecuritySolutions.com, which advises clients on strategies for maximizing Social Security benefits, provides this summary of the divorced spouse rules, plus several hypothetical examples of how the rules can work in your favor [pdf file].

Filing for a divorced spouse benefit is a completely private affair between you and the Social Security Administration. The Social Security Administration doesn’t report to your spouse that you’ve inquired – or filed for benefits – on his or her record.

You’ll need to prove you were once married by visiting your local Social Security office with paperwork in hand. Be prepared to show a birth certificate; proof of citizenship; W-2 forms or self-employment tax returns for the last year; your final divorce decree; and your marriage certificate.

The same rules apply for Medicare eligibility.

Can members of a same sex couple receive spousal or survivor benefits? Not yet, unfortunately. Couples who marry in states that have legalized same sex marriage — and have valid marriage certificates — still can’t qualify for Social Security’s spousal and survivor benefits due to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines the word “spouse” as applying only to different-sex married couples for any purpose involving interpretation of federal law. Click here to learn more about this issue.