A Social Security spouse benefit is called a “spousal benefit”. It applies to:
It is especially important to understand how a spouse benefit is affected when taking Social Security benefits early, and what happens upon the death of a spouse. I've spelled out what you need to know in four sections below:
1. Spousal Benefit Basics
- As a spouse, you can claim a Social Security benefit based on your own earnings record, or you can collect a spousal benefit that will provide you 50% of the amount of your spouse’s Social Security benefit as calculated at their full retirement age (FRA). Your personal FRA depends on your year of birth.
- You are automatically entitled to receive the benefit that provides you the higher monthly amount; either a benefit based on your own earnings, or the spousal benefit, and prior to reaching full retirement age, Social Security makes this determination for you.
- After you reach full retirement age, you can choose to receive only the spousal benefit, and delay receiving your retirement benefits until a later date, allowing you to receive a higher benefit later based on the effect of delayed retirement credits.
- You must be age 62 to qualify for either type of Social Security benefit.
- You cannot collect a spousal benefit until your spouse files for their own benefit. (Slightly different rules apply for ex-spouses - scroll to bottom for a link to spousal benefits for ex-spouses.)
2. Spousal Benefits and Early Retirement
- If you collect a spousal benefit, and you begin collecting this benefit before you reach full retirement age, your benefit will be permanently reduced. To see how this reduction is calculated visit the Benefits For Spouses section of the Social Security website.
- If your spouse takes Social Security early, and you take a spousal benefit early, you will be significantly reducing the amount of benefits that may be paid out over your lifetime.
- Married couples can get more in Social Security payments by coordinating how and when they should each begin collecting benefits. You can run these numbers yourself to see how it works by using an advanced Social Security calculator.
3. When You Are a Widow or Widower
- If you are a widow or widower you can collect a survivor’s benefit as early as age 60.
- Once you and your spouse are receiving Social Security benefits, upon the death of your spouse, you will continue to receive the larger of your benefit, or your spouse’s, but not both. This means if you have a longer life expectancy, and you are collecting a benefit based on your spouse’s earnings, if your spouse starts taking Social Security early, it will result in a significant reduction in your benefit too, and the reduction will last throughout your life expectancy.
- A surviving spouse living in the same household is eligible to receive a one-time lump sum payment of $255 upon the death of their spouse.
- When married couples choose to maximize the highest earning spouse’s benefit by having that person delay collecting until age 70, it acts as a powerful form of life insurance. In many cases it provides the equivalent of $50,000 - $250,000 of life insurance benefit.
4. Social Security Benefits For an Ex-Spouse
- To learn more about Social Security benefits for an ex-spouse, read Social Security Benefits and Divorce.
Dana Anspach, CFP®, RMASM, has been the About.com Guide to MoneyOver55 since 2008. She is the founder of Sensible Money, LLC, and author of a book on retirement income planning which contains a 40 page chapter on Social Security. You can learn more about Dana's work in her bio.