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social security spousal benefits

Everyone has heard of Social Security, and everyone knows the basic concept. If you pay into it while you work, then you benefit from it when you retire. However, there are some lesser known features of Social Security that can make a big difference for your retirement. Social Security spousal benefits are just one of these features.

Intended for married couples with a sole or primary breadwinner, spousal benefits can significantly increase the amount of money you have coming in during retirement. They can even provide a nice supplement to your 401(k) or IRA distributions. Read on to learn how you can become eligible for spousal benefits, how to calculate your benefit and how your benefit will be affected if you retire early or if your spouse passes away.

Who is Eligible for Social Security Spousal Benefits?

Social Security spousal benefits are available to current spouses and widowed spouses. You must be at least 62 years old to file for a spousal benefit. Also, your spouse has to have filed for their Social Security Benefit first.

Ex-spouses are also eligible for spousal benefits, provided you were married to your spouse for more than 10 years and you didn’t remarry before you turned 60. In the case of ex-spouses, you still have to be at least 62 to file. However, your spouse doesn’t have to have filed for his or her benefits before you file for spousal benefits.

How Much are Spousal Benefits Worth?

social security spousal benefits

A spousal benefit will be worth 50% of your spouse’s benefit amount as calculated at your spouse’s full retirement age (FRA). Your FRA depends on the year you were born. You can find yours by heading to the Social Security website. For everyone born in 1960 or after, your FRA is 67 years of age. So, let’s say your spouse retires at his or her FRA and is eligible for a benefit of $1,600. Then, you would in turn be eligible at your FRA for $800.

If you contributed to Social Security, you may wonder if your spousal benefit will be higher than your own benefit. Thankfully, you don’t need to worry. Social Security will automatically determine which is higher between your benefit or your spousal benefit. Then, you will receive the higher amount.

There are a couple specific details that can alter the amount of your spousal benefit. One to keep in mind is that there is a maximum that one family can receive from Social Security. So, if another member of the family like a child or another spouse is eligible for benefits, that could reduce the amount of your spousal benefit.

Another has to do with when you were born. If you were born in 1953 or earlier, you are able to file for just your spousal benefits and then file to replace that benefit with your own benefit at a later date. This could be an attractive option if you want to start receiving a benefit, but you need to wait a few years for your own benefit to reach its maximum amount. If you were born after 1953, you can’t file separately like this, so once you file, you’ve filed for everything.

What if you Want to Retire Early?

If you wish to retire early and file for your spousal benefit before you reach your FRA, then the monthly benefit you’ll receive will be lower. Specifically, your spousal benefit will be reduced by approximately 0.7% (25/36 of 1%) for each month before your FRA. If you file for benefits more than 36 months before your FRA, then your benefit will be reduced by approximately 0.4% (5/12 of 1%) for each month after 36 months.

For example, if you’re eligible for a spousal benefit of $750, but you file for benefits 18 months before your FRA, then your benefit would be reduced to $656.25 [750 x (1 – 0.007 x 18)]. If you file for benefits 40 months early, then your benefit would be reduced to $550 [750 x (1 – 0.007 x 36 – 0.004 x 4)].

Furthermore, if your spouse files for his or her benefits early, and you in turn also file for your spousal benefit early, your benefit will be reduced even further. These reductions will be permanent. Therefore, it’s crucial that you and your spouse are careful when determining when you will file for benefits. You don’t want to lock in smaller payments unless you know you can afford it.

If you file for benefits once you reach your FRA, you can continue to work and earn income even while you are collecting benefits. However, you can’t do this before you reach your FRA. If you receive benefits early, then you continue to work after that, you may owe Social Security back some of the benefits you received.

What to Do if Your Spouse Passes Away?

social security spousal benefits

As a widow or widower, you are eligible to file for a survivor’s benefit once you turn 60. If you wish to let your own benefit keep growing, you can do that. You can choose to file for just your survivor’s benefit when you turn 60, then switch to your own benefit at a later date. You can also do the inverse of this. You can file for your own benefit first and then switch to your survivor’s benefit.

If your spouses passes away after one or both of you is already receiving benefits, then you’ll have a choice. You can either continue receiving your benefit or continue receiving your spouse’s benefit. If you were receiving a spousal benefit, then you would almost certainly choose to continue receiving your spouse’s benefit, as it would be much larger.

Spousal benefits is like almost any Social Security discussion. You will get the most out of the program if you coordinate with your spouse. You’ll want to make sure the highest-earning spouse is waiting to maximize his or her benefits before filing.

Tips for Saving for Retirement

  • All of the age thresholds and eligibility requirements and conditions for your Social Security benefits can be a bit overwhelming. If so, you may want to look at our Social Security calculator. You can fill in your information, and we’ll do the rest.
  • In any retirement conversation, it’s always important to be mindful of the retirement tax laws in the state you live in. Taking your state’s laws into account can make a significant difference as you plan for retirement.
  • If you already have some money to spare, you could save even more by finding a financial advisor. A financial advisor can take a comprehensive look at your finances and determine where you can cut expenses and save more. To find the right advisor, you can use SmartAsset’s free financial advisor matching tool. You can answer a series of questions about your financial goals and situation. Then, the tool will match you with three qualified financial advisors in your area.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/Zinkevych, ©iStock.com/FredFroese, ©iStock.com/zimmytws

Hunter Kuffel, CEPF® Hunter Kuffel is a personal finance writer with expertise in savings, retirement and investing. Hunter is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance® (CEPF®) and a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame and currently lives in New York City.
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