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Social Security spousal benefits provide a monthly sum to a retired worker’s spouse or former spouse. The spouse receives up to 50% of the value of the retired worker’s Social Security base retirement or disability benefit.
If you’re the retired worker in this equation, signing up your spouse for spousal benefits doesn’t mean your retirement benefits are cut in half. Instead, your spouse receives a Social Security benefit on top of the retirement benefits you receive.
Explaining Social Security spousal benefits involves making some assumptions. Spousal benefits are structured to be most advantageous in circumstances in which only one member of a married or divorced couple qualifies for Social Security retirement or disability benefits — or one member qualifies for a significantly larger benefit than the other.
In this article, any reference to the retired worker refers to an individual who qualifies for Social Security retirement or disability benefits; that could be one member of a couple or both.
The Social Security Administration website, ssa.gov, lays out who qualifies for spousal benefits, when they can apply and how the benefits are calculated. Learn how spousal benefits may factor into your future income, according to guidance from ssa.gov.
» Need a primer? See Social Security explained
Who qualifies for Social Security spousal benefits
Current and former spouses of workers who qualify for retirement or disability benefits are eligible for Social Security spousal benefits. A married or divorced person can receive spousal benefits despite whether they qualify for Social Security retirement benefits based on their work history. If that spouse qualifies for retirement benefits, the amount they’d receive from that benefit is factored into the calculation of any spousal benefits.
A retired worker’s current spouse qualifies for Social Security spousal benefits once that spouse turns 62, as long as their partner (the retired worker) is receiving retirement or disability benefits.
Former spouses qualify for spousal benefits at age 62 if the marriage lasted 10 or more years and the member looking to receive spousal benefits is unmarried. If the divorce occurred two or more years ago, an ex-spouse can begin collecting spousal benefits even if the person they were married to hasn’t started receiving retirement benefits.
Spousal benefits paid to an ex-spouse don’t affect the benefits a current spouse can receive if they qualify.
A retired worker’s spouse can receive spousal benefits at any age if the spouse cares for the retired worker’s child who is eligible for benefits. Spousal benefits are typically reduced if the person begins receiving them before full retirement age. But benefits are not reduced if that person is in this caregiver scenario.
How to calculate Social Security spousal benefits
How much your spouse would get from Social Security spousal benefits depends on several factors.
1. The size of the worker’s retirement benefits
How much the retired worker qualifies for in Social Security retirement benefits at full retirement age sets the baseline for calculating spousal benefits. (Full retirement age is 66 or 67, depending on the year of birth.)
Current and former spouses could receive up to 50% of their partner’s “primary insurance amount,” the amount a person would receive if they applied for Social Security at full retirement age.
If you’re a retired worker, that means the timing of your Social Security application doesn’t affect spousal benefits. So if you tap into Social Security early and get a reduced benefit or if you wait until after full retirement age to get a bigger benefit, the spousal benefit is still calculated based on your primary insurance amount.
If the person applying for spousal benefits is under full retirement age and still working, ssa.gov’s Social Security earnings test calculator can show how income from a job could affect spousal benefits. Additionally, if that person is a former government worker receiving a pension, that employment could lead to a smaller benefit.
2. The spouse’s age when they apply for benefits
If you’re looking to collect Social Security spousal benefits, be aware that your benefits will be reduced if you apply before your full retirement age.
At age 62, the spousal benefit is typically calculated at 32.5% of the retired worker’s primary insurance amount. The percentage grows as you, the spouse, get closer to full retirement age. At that point, the spousal benefit maxes out at 50% of the retired worker’s primary insurance amount.
So, if the worker’s primary insurance amount is $2,000 and the spouse applies for benefits when they turn 62, they would receive $650 — 32.5% of $2,000. If they waited until full retirement age, their benefit would be 50% of $2,000, so $1,000.
Unlike Social Security retirement benefits, spousal benefits don't keep increasing if the spouse delays their application beyond full retirement age. Retired workers max out their potential benefit if they delay Social Security until age 70. But a person applying for spousal benefits who waits until age 70 still gets 50% of their retired partner’s primary insurance amount.
3. The spouse’s Social Security retirement benefits
When someone applies for Social Security retirement benefits, the Social Security Administration also will consider whether they qualify for spousal benefits. This happens automatically; an application for one is treated as an application for both. The person then receives benefits equal to the highest amount they could receive under either benefit.
There’s an upside to this: If a person’s retirement benefit would be smaller than their spousal benefit, they get the higher amount. However, it underscores the importance of timing the application because it will activate spousal benefits and retirement benefits simultaneously.
Let’s say you qualify for a Social Security retirement benefit that equals or exceeds that of the retired worker in your household. Because the SSA will count any application for spousal benefits as an application for retirement benefits, you can’t activate one and delay the other. So, you can’t apply for spousal benefits at full retirement age and wait to start retirement benefits at age 70, when you qualify for your maximum benefit. You’d get the higher of the two benefits starting with the initial application.
» Ready for the next step? Learn how to apply for Social Security