Among Social Security’s myriad regulations, few topics are more misunderstood than spouse benefits. Terminology is important here – “spouse benefits” in Social Security (SS) parlance refers to benefits one spouse can collect from the other’s record while both spouses are living. A spouse’s “survivor benefits” are governed by entirely separate rules. So, let’s take the mystery out of spouse benefits.

First, a few basic rules:

  • If both eligible, both spouses must be collecting benefits for one to get a spouse benefit from the other.
  • You must be at least 62 years old and married for at least one year to collect a spouse benefit.
  • Your marriage must be legally recognized by the state you live in (common law marriages aren’t recognized in most U.S. states).

If all the above are true, it is possible that one spouse may be able to collect benefits from the other if there is a large enough disparity in how much each spouse is entitled to on their own.

Spouse ineligible for personal SS retirement benefits

If one spouse is not eligible for Social Security based on their personal lifetime work record, they may still be eligible for a benefit based upon their spouse’s work record. In this case, the benefit computation is relatively simple: a percentage of the other spouse’s full retirement age (FRA) benefit amount, with the spouse benefit reduced if claimed before full retirement age. The maximum spouse benefit, if taken at FRA, is 50% of the other spouse’s FRA benefit amount. But if taken before FRA the spouse benefit is reduced to as low as 32.5% if claimed at age 62. Any time any Social Security benefit is taken early it is reduced.

Spouse eligible for SS retirement benefits

If both spouses are eligible for their own SS retirement benefit, the spouse benefit computation is more complex. In this case, the spouse’s benefit will consist of their earned personal benefit and a “spousal boost” to bring them to their spousal entitlement. To determine the “spousal boost,” the FRA amount of the person with the smaller personal benefit is subtracted from 50% of the other spouse’s FRA benefit. The difference (if any) is the “spousal boost.”  If the spouse benefit is taken at full retirement age, the full spousal boost is added to that spouse’s own SS retirement benefit amount; but if taken before FRA the amount of the spousal boost is reduced. Thus, a spouse claiming a reduced SS retirement benefit before their FRA will, if the other spouse is already collecting, also get a reduced spousal boost, and the total will less than 50% of the other spouse’s FRA benefit. A spouse benefit will be paid only if the FRA benefit for one spouse is more than twice the other spouse’s FRA benefit amount.

The “Deemed Filing” Rule

Because of Social Security’s “deemed filing” rule, it is not possible for a spouse to claim their own SS benefit without also claiming their spousal benefit if they are entitled to one when they claim. A claiming spouse will be automatically “deemed” to be filing for all benefits available to them at the time they file. Neither is it possible (except in one very rare circumstance)[1] to claim only a spouse benefit without also claiming one’s personally earned SS benefit.

Exceptions and Nuances

As with most things in Social Security, there are exceptions and nuances. For example, a spouse not yet age 62 and caring for their minor child under age 16 is entitled to “child-in-care” spouse benefits at any age if the other spouse is collecting SS benefits. Also, divorced spouses may collect an ex-spouse benefit if the marriage lasted for at least 10 years, if they aren’t currently married, and if all other eligibility criteria are met. Always check with a reliable source about eligibility for spousal benefits.

Here at The AMAC Foundation’s Social Security Advisory service, questions about spousal benefits are among those most frequently asked. If you have questions about Social Security, contact us at [email protected], or at 1-888-750-2622.

[1] “Deemed Filing” does not apply to those born before January 2, 1954.