Social Security has been around since 1935, and even after all those years, there is still a lot of confusion about the Social Security Spousal benefit. What is it? It’s an opportunity to receive a Social Security check based on their spouse’s work record. It’s beneficial for people who have very little work history of their own or if they’re married to someone who earns significantly more than they do. As with any government program, there are rules you need to know.


You Get up to 50% of Your Spouse’s Benefit

The maximum Spousal benefit is 50% of your spouse’s primary insurance amount (PIA). That’s just a fancy way of saying the amount your spouse is eligible for when they reach their Full Retirement Age (FRA), which is 67 for everyone born in 1960 or after.

If you take the Spousal Benefit before YOUR Full Retirement Age, you’ll get a permanently reduced benefit. It’s the IRS penalty for claiming early. For example, if you begin the Spousal benefit at age 62, which is the earliest age you can start Social Security, you’ll receive 32.5% of your spouse’s primary amount.


You Can’t Double Dip

If you have your own work history and claim a Spousal benefit, Social Security will check both and will award you the highest of the two. But there is some possible strategy here. For example, if you’ll eligible for a benefit from your own work record and the Spousal benefit, you might apply for the spousal benefit and not claim your own benefit until age 70.

For every year you wait to claim your own benefit past your Full Retirement Age, your benefit grows by 8% per year, giving you the highest possible Social Security check at age 70. The 8% is called delayed credits. So, if you wait until age 70 to claim your own benefit, and the amount of that benefit is more than what you receive from the Spousal benefit, you can switch from one to the other.

But be careful. You have to specify which benefit you’re asking for. Otherwise, Social Security says you’re applying for the highest of all benefits you’re eligible for. On the application, you have to be specific. You might say something like, “I am only applying for the Spousal benefit. I am not applying for the benefit based on my own work record.” With that wording, you’ll be able to switch from one benefit to another in the future.


You May be Eligible for a Spousal Benefit Based on your Ex-Spouse’s Record

Sounds crazy, but true. If you were married to your Ex for 10 years or longer, have been divorced at least 2 years and have not remarried, you can claim a Spousal benefit based on your Ex’s work history.

The same spousal rules apply: Your maximum benefit will be 50% of what your Ex is entitled to at their Full Retirement Age. If you claim the Spousal benefit before your FRA you will receive a permanently reduced benefit. It’s the Social Security penalty for taking the benefit before your FRA.

Claiming the Spousal benefit has no effect on the amount of Social Security your Ex will receive. And if that person is remarried, there is no effect on the amount of Spousal benefit the current spouse can receive.


If You’ve Remarried…

As mentioned, if you’ve remarried, you’re not eligible to claim a Spousal benefit based on your Ex’s work history. But once you’ve been married to your new spouse for at least one year, you qualify for a Spousal benefit based on your new spouse’s work record.

If you’ve been married and divorced twice and you claim a Spousal benefit, Social Security will look at the work record, yours and both ex-spouses and you’ll get the largest benefit of all three.


You Can’t Claim a Spouse’s Social Security Disability

This is the one place a Spousal benefit is not possible. To file a claim for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) you have to have paid into the Social Security system yourself and have a qualifying medical condition.


Survivor Benefits

If your spouse dies, you may be eligible for the Survivor benefit. Remember, the Spousal benefit is a maximum of 50% of what your spouse was eligible for at their Full Retirement Age. The Survivor benefit is a maximum of 100% of what your spouse was receiving at the time of their death. Unlike the Spousal benefit, any delayed credits your spouse received by waiting past their FRA to claim a benefit are included in the Survivor benefit.


When you apply for the Survivor benefit, you’ll receive the bigger of your benefit or the Survivor benefit, but not both. And if you claim the Survivor before your Full Retirement Age, you will receive a permanently reduced benefit.