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Maximizing Social Security with Spousal Benefits

by Nancy Crowley, CPA

Spousal benefits are one way to maximize what you receive from Social Security.  Whether you are married, divorced, or widowed, you can use spousal benefits to increase Social Security payments.  However, many Americans today still do not understand how to make the most of their Social Security spousal benefits. 

Each person’s situation is unique.  Below is an overview of various Social Security spousal benefit strategies that can be used for the following scenarios:

  • Spousal Social Security Benefits while your spouse is still alive
  • Spousal Social Security Survivor Benefits
  • Divorced Spousal Social Security Benefits
  • Divorced Spousal Social Security Survivor Benefits
  • Spousal Social Security and Government Pension Offset Provisions

Spousal Social Security Benefits while Spouse is Living

While your spouse is alive, you are entitled to the greater of Social Security based on your own work record or a maximum of 50% of your spouse’s Social Security benefits.  You are not entitled to Spousal Social Security until your spouse is receiving Social Security benefits.  The spousal benefit is calculated as follows:

  1. If you qualify for benefits on your own record, Social Security will pay that amount first. 
  2. If the benefit based on your spouse’s record is higher than benefits based on your own record, then you will receive an additional amount based on your spouse’s record.
  3. If you never worked, the spousal benefit is based entirely on your spouse’s record.

The percentage of spousal benefits that you receive depends on your age when you apply for Social Security.  The earliest that you may receive spousal Social Security benefits is age 62.  Should your spousal Social Security benefits begin at age 62, your benefit is reduced to 32.5% of your spouse’s benefits.  The percentage of spousal benefits increases with age up until full retirement age, when it is 50%. Social Security defines full retirement age as the age at which a person may become entitled to full or unreduced retirement benefits (full retirement age is 66 for those born in the years 1943 through 1954 and gradually increases to age 67 for those born in 1960 and later). The absolute maximum amount of Spousal Social Security benefits occurs when:

  1. You are at full retirement age and,
  2. Your spouse started his or her benefits at full retirement age or later.

Important to note is that spousal benefits do not include any delayed retirement credits.   Delayed retirement credits are an 8% per year increase in benefits from full retirement age to age 70.  For example:

Susan has reached full retirement age and her husband Wayne is 68. Wayne’s full retirement age was 66 and his full retirement age benefit was $1,200 per month.  He chose to wait to receive benefits until age 68 when he would receive a $1,400 per month benefit.  Susan’s spousal benefits are limited to one-half of Wayne’s full retirement benefit which is $600 per month.

Spousal Social Security Survivor Benefits

If your deceased spouse was eligible for Social Security benefits, you, as the widow or widower, may receive the same benefit as your deceased spouse provided you are at your full retirement age or reduced benefits as early as age 60. The reduction is anywhere from 1 percent to 28.5 percent depending on the age you start receiving benefits.  For example:

Linda was born in 1956.  Her full retirement age is 66 and 4 months.  If her spouse Gary dies, Linda would be able to start receiving retirement benefits as early as age 60. However, the payments would be reduced to 71.5% of Gary’s full retirement benefits.  If Linda qualified for a higher benefit on her own record, she would then switch to her own retirement benefit as early as age 62.

Keep in mind that a limitation would occur if Gary had started receiving retirement benefits before his full retirement age. If Linda then starts her Spousal Social Security Survivor Benefits prior to her full retirement date, the benefits would be even further reduced.  Linda is only entitled to the amount of benefits Gary was receiving or was eligible to receive at date of death.  However, this may also work in her favor if Gary had delayed receiving his Social Security benefits until age 70, as she is then entitled to the maximum amount in spousal survivor benefits which include the delayed retirement credits.

Divorced Spousal Social Security Benefits

If you are divorced and your marriage lasted 10 years or longer, you can receive benefits on your ex-spouse’s record, regardless of whether he or she has remarried.  Certain requirements must be met:

  1. You are unmarried,
  2. You are 62 or older,
  3. Your ex-spouse is entitled to Social Security retirement benefits (not necessarily receiving benefits but is entitled to receive benefits), and
  4. Your benefit based on your own work is less than the benefit based on your ex-spouse’s work.

The maximum amount you may receive is one-half of your ex-spouse’s full retirement benefit if you start receiving benefits at your full retirement age.  You are not entitled to any delayed retirement credits. Should you remarry, you cannot collect on your former spouse’s record.  For example:

Kathy has been divorced for 15 years and is at full retirement age.  Andy, her ex-husband is entitled to full Social Security retirement benefits of $1,300 per month.  Kathy is entitled to the greater of $650 per month (one-half of Andy’s benefit) or her own benefit based on her earnings record.

It does not matter that Andy has remarried.  If Kathy remarries she cannot collect on her former spouse’s record.

Divorced Spousal Social Security Survivor Benefits

If you are divorced after a marriage of 10 years or more and your ex-spouse dies, you are entitled to the same benefits as a widow (see the Spousal Social Security Survivor Benefits section above.)  If you remarry after reaching age 60, you will still be eligible for survivor’s benefits.  If your current spouse is receiving Social Security and that amount is more than your Survivor Benefits, you may apply for benefits based on his or her benefits.  For example:

Same facts as prior example, but Andy has passed away.  Kathy is now entitled to $1,300 in monthly benefits as a divorced surviving spouse.  Two years later Kathy remarries and Peter, her new husband, receives $2,800 monthly in Social Security benefits.  Kathy is now entitled to receive $1,400 per month in spousal Social Security benefits.

Each person must evaluate their own particular circumstances to determine which Social Security spousal benefit is applicable.  If you have any questions or need help in evaluating your specific situation, please contact your RINET advisor.  Additional resources can also be found at the Retirement Planner: Benefits For You As A Spouse section of the Social Security website.