June 8, 2020

Edited 06/22/20

Qualifying for Social Security Spousal Benefits

A guide for spouses, divorcees, and widowers on their benefits

If you never paid into Social Security or didn’t work long enough, you may need to rely on Social Security Spousal benefits for your retirement if your spouse is eligible. However, you can qualify for your spouse’s benefits even if you’ve qualified for your own. Depending on your situation, there are requirements you have to meet in order to qualify for spousal benefits.

How to Qualify for Spousal Benefits Based on Marital Status

Your marital status determines how you can qualify for spousal benefits if you’re currently married, divorced or widowed. 

Some retirees need to take a spousal benefit because they did not work long enough to qualify for their own Social Security retirement benefit. That may be true for people who stopped working in order to care for their children and/or elderly relatives. Alternatively, if you’ve paid into the system, you and your spouse are eligible to claim the higher benefit of the two.

Married

You can qualify for spousal benefits if:

  • Your spouse is already receiving retirement benefits,
  • You have been married for at least one year, and
  • You are at least 62 years old, or you are caring for a child who is under age 16 or disabled.

Divorced

If you are divorced, you can receive Social Security benefits based on your ex-spouse’s earnings record if:

  • You’ve been divorced for at least two years,
  • You were married for more than 10 years,
  • You never remarried, and
  • You are age 62 or older.

In this case, you’re not required to show that your ex-spouse has already claimed their Social Security benefits.

Widower

If your spouse died, you can qualify for survivor benefits if:

  • You were married to the deceased person for at least nine months, and  
  • You are at least 60 years old (unless you are disabled or caring for the deceased person’s child, who is under age 16 or disabled).

How Much to Expect from Social Security Spousal Benefits

The size of your Social Security spousal benefit depends on your age, your spouse’s age, the maximum amount of your spouse’s benefit, and whether other benefits are available to you. The maximum amount you can claim is 50 percent of your spouse’s full benefit.

You might be eligible for a retirement benefit based on your own earnings history. If your retirement benefit is higher than the spousal benefit, then Social Security will pay your  retirement benefit. If the spousal benefit is higher, then Social Security will pay you the spousal benefit. 

For example, let’s say your spouse earned an average of $90,000 per year working full-time for over 40 years, and you earned an average of $20,000 per year at various part-time jobs over 20 years, along with raising your children. You would take the spousal benefit because it would be higher than your retirement benefit. 

If you’re widowed, you’re eligible to receive the full amount of your late spouse’s benefit, if you’ve reached full retirement age.

It’s important to keep in mind that if you get a pension from your public-sector work that wasn’t subject to FICA taxes, Social Security will reduce the benefit you are eligible to receive as a spouse, ex-spouse or survivor. That reduction is two-thirds of your pension amount.

Receiving Spousal Benefits Early

Full retirement age varies from 65 to 67, depending on your birth year. If you were born after 1960, your full retirement age is 67.2.

You can begin receiving spousal benefits as early as age 62, but you will receive a reduced benefit, according to the number of months left until you reach full retirement age. However, if you are caring for a qualifying child, your spousal benefit won’t be reduced.

Delaying Benefits

Some Americans delay claiming their Social Security benefits because the monthly payments will be larger for those who wait.

You can delay claiming your spousal benefits if you are under age 67. However, once you reach full retirement age, don’t delay claiming any longer because it won’t increase your benefit.

In general, you should pay close attention to the rules to know the right timing for you and your spouse or ex-spouse to start claiming Social Security benefits. You can maximize the benefit if you get the timing right.