Social Security Spousal Benefits: Who Qualifies, How to Calculate

Learn how Social Security spousal benefits may factor into your future income.
Taryn Phaneuf
By Taryn Phaneuf 
Updated
Edited by Laura McMullen

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Social Security spousal benefits are available to retired workers’ spouses, even if those spouses didn’t pay into the program. In some cases, ex-spouses can also claim spousal benefits.

Social Security spousal benefits pays qualifying spouses the greater of the two: their benefit based on their own work record (if they worked), or up to 50% of their spouse’s benefit. When you apply for benefits, the Social Security Administration calculates it both ways and pays you the higher of the two benefits, but not both.

What are Social Security spousal benefits?

Social Security spousal benefits pay qualifying spouses or ex-spouses up to 50% of a worker's base monthly retirement or disability benefit.

Social Security Administration. Benefits for Spouses. Accessed Oct 13, 2022.
. Spousal benefits do not reduce the worker's benefit; they are paid in addition to the worker's benefit.

  • Spousal benefits are most advantageous when 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.

  • Spousal benefits are not the same as Social Security survivors benefits. If your spouse died, you may have different options.

  • When you get your monthly payment depends on what day of the month you were born.

  • 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.

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» Need a primer? See Social Security explained

When can a spouse claim Social Security spousal benefits?

A retired worker’s spouse qualifies for Social Security spousal benefits once that spouse turns 62, or if they (the spouse) are caring for a child either under 16, or a child who receives disability benefits. Of course, the spouse only qualifies if their partner (the retired worker) is receiving retirement or disability benefits.

A retired worker's ex-spouse qualifies for spousal benefits at age 62 if:

  • the marriage lasted 10 or more years, and

  • the ex-spouse is unmarried.

If the divorce occurred two or more years ago, an ex-spouse can begin collecting spousal benefits even if their former spouse (the retired worker) 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.

Did you know...

A retired worker’s spouse can receive full spousal benefits at any age if the spouse cares for a retired worker’s child who is under age 16 or receives Social Security disability benefits.

How to apply for Social Security spousal benefits

You can apply for Social Security spousal benefits online, as long as you’re within three months of turning 62 or older. If not, you can either visit your local Social Security office or call 1-800-772-1213.

You may be asked to provide some documents, including your birth certificate, marriage certificate (or divorce decree), W-2 forms or self-employment tax forms from the previous year, and proof of citizenship if you weren’t born in the United States.

You’ll also be asked a series of questions, including whether you or anyone else has filed for Social Security, Medicare or Supplemental Security Income benefits on your behalf. Here’s more information on applying for Social Security spousal benefits online or in-person.

How to calculate Social Security spousal benefits

Determining much a spouse gets from Social Security spousal benefits has three main steps.

1. Calculate the retired worker’s retirement benefits

Spousal benefits are based on what Social Security retirement benefits the retired worker qualifies for at full retirement age (this is called the “primary insurance amount” or PIA). Full retirement age is 66 or 67, depending on a person’s year of birth.

Current and former spouses may receive up to 50% of this amount

Social Security Administration. Primary Insurance Amount. Accessed Oct 13, 2022.
.

2. Factor in the spouse’s age when they apply for benefits

The Social Security Administration reduces your spousal benefit if you apply before you reach your full retirement age (again, either 66 or 67, depending on your year of birth).

  • If the spouse decides to start taking spousal benefits at age 62, for example, the spousal benefit could be as little as 32.5% of the retired worker’s benefit. 

  • That percentage grows as the spouse gets closer to their full retirement age. 

  • 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 at 62, they might receive just $650 per month (32.5% of $2,000). If the spouse waits until full retirement age, the benefit would be 50% of $2,000, so $1,000 per month.

Spousal benefits don't keep increasing if the worker delays their application beyond full retirement age. So even if a retired worker decides to max out their retirement benefit by delaying Social Security until age 70 (the age at which your retirement benefits reach their highest amount), a person applying for spousal benefits who waits until age 70 doesn't also get a bump. The spouse still gets 50% of the retired worker's primary insurance amount (the retirement benefits the worker qualified for at their full retirement age, which is 66 or 67).

🤓Nerdy Tip

Did you know that Medicare Part B premiums are usually automatically deducted from your Social Security retirement checks? Learn more about how much Medicare actually costs.

3. Determine whether the spouse is also eligible for 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 the higher of the two benefits

Social Security Administration. Filing Rules for Retirement and Spouses Benefits. Accessed Oct 13, 2022.
.

However, the timing of the application is important because it will activate spousal benefits and retirement benefits simultaneously.

  • For example, 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

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