Spousal Social Security Benefits: 3 Things All Retired Couples Should Know

As you work throughout your career, a good portion of the taxes you pay go toward Social Security. For decades, Social Security has been one of America’s most important social programs, especially when it comes to retirement. Social Security benefits provide guaranteed income for retirees and help keep many people out of poverty.

Luckily, Social Security retirement benefits aren’t solely for people who worked and paid taxes throughout their careers. Social Security permits spousal benefits to support non-working or low-earning spouses in retirement as well. For couples nearing or in retirement and considering this option, here are three things you should know.

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1. How Social Security spousal benefits are calculated

Social Security calculates a recipient’s monthly benefits using a formula that factors in their 35 highest-earning years of income. However, a spouse can receive Social Security benefits based on their partner’s earning record if one of the following applies:

  • They’re at least 62 years old.
  • They’re caring for a child under 16.
  • They’re caring for a child with a disability.

If the person claiming spousal benefits is at their full retirement age, they’re eligible to receive 50% of their spouse’s primary insurance amount (PIA).

For instance, if spouse A’s earnings record gives them a monthly benefit of $1,500 at their full retirement age, spouse B could receive up to $750 monthly. The exact amount will depend on the age at which spouse B claims benefits.

2. How the age you claim affects your monthly benefit

Your full retirement age is one of the most important numbers related to Social Security — and retirement, in general — because it’s when you’re eligible to receive your PIA. However, you don’t have to claim benefits at your full retirement age; you can claim them before then, reducing your monthly benefit or delay them past it, increasing your monthly benefit.

Chart showing Social Security full retirement ages by birth year.

Image source: The Motley Fool.

For the primary spouse (the one claiming based on their work record), benefits are reduced by 5/9 of 1% each month before their full retirement age, up to 36 months. Each additional month further reduces benefits by 5/12 of 1%. For example, someone whose full retirement age is 67 and claims benefits at 64 would have them reduced by 20%. If they claimed at 62, they’d be reduced by 30%.

The reduction is different for the person claiming spousal benefits. Their benefits are reduced by 25/36 of 1% each month before their full retirement age, up to 36 months, and then reduced 5/12 of 1% each additional month after. If their full retirement age is 67 and they claim at 64, benefits would be reduced by 25%. If they claimed at 62, they’d be reduced by 35%.

Although monthly Social Security benefits are increased for the primary spouse if they delay past their full retirement age, this doesn’t apply to those receiving spousal benefits.

3. What happens to benefits if a spouse passes away

Although they’re separate types of Social Security benefits, spousal and survivors benefits are closely linked. If someone is receiving spousal benefits when their spouse passes away, their spousal benefits are automatically converted to survivors benefits.

When spousal benefits are converted, the person receiving them is eligible to receive up to 100% of their deceased spouse’s benefit, including any benefit increase they might’ve received for delaying benefits past their full retirement age.

Survivors benefits can be initiated as early as age 60, or age 50 for those with a disability. However, similar to regular spousal benefits, survivors benefits will be reduced if they’re claimed before full retirement age. For instance, if a widow or widower begins receiving survivors benefits at age 60, they will receive about 71.5% of the deceased spouse’s benefits after the reduction.

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