Because the rules determining Social Security spousal benefits can get very complex, this article will only cover the larger topics. For specific details regarding your specific situation you are encouraged to contact Social Security of stop in at your local Social Security office to get the important details.
Thought Social Security does allow spouses to collect benefits under certain conditions, the actual percentage of Social Security benefits paid out to spouses is very low. As of November, 2018, the average check was just over $740 and was responsible for only $1.8 billion of the more than $60 billion in total payouts under the program. One of the reasons is the restrictions placed not only on eligibility, but on the actual monthly check after a certain age is reached.
In general, if you are the spouse of someone who qualifies for Social Security under the existing guidelines, you are eligible. If you are divorced but were married to your ex for at least 10 years, you qualify but have to meet certain conditions. The amount of the monthly benefit check is determined by three major factors:
- The amount of money the spouse made
- The amount of money the partner made
- The year which application for benefits has been made
Note that the term “partner” was used in describing the qualifications. The reason is that the government now recognizes same-sex marriages as eligible relationships for the purposes of collecting Social Security benefits. For the purposes of eligibility, the state where a same-sex couple was married does not matter, as the law acknowledges any legal marriage within any of the 50 states.
Also, there are certain non-marital relationships that may qualify for spousal benefits. The specific requirements may depend on the state in which you live and other factors that will determine the marital status according to the law (common law marriages, for example). If you think you may qualify, be sure to visit the local Social Security office in the state where you reside.
If you are a spouse seeking benefits, if you have never worked or are not eligible to claim Social Security benefits independent from your spouse, then you will not be able to file a claim until you reach the age of 62. One key term you will need to pay attention to is the Full Retirement Age or FRA. This is the age at which your spouse is able to collect 100 percent of their total benefits. Workers who were born after 1954 will arrive at this age on either their 66th or 67th birthday.
There comes a point where the spousal benefit gets reduced by 50 percent. That point is when the spouse reaches their own FRA. If someone claims the spousal benefit immediately at age 62, and for the purposes of this discussion receive $500 a month in benefits, once they reach age 66 or 67 their benefit will be reduced to $250. This is only an example, and the actual reduction rates are subject to change, so again, contact your local office to get complete information.
If both spouses work, the total amount of Social Security benefits the two are eligible for combined is the higher of the two benefit monthly checks. If one spouse is eligible for a $1000 monthly benefit and the spouse can get $400 a month, the most that both can get is $1000. This is one reason why many older widows and widowers are choosing not to get married but simply co-habitate because the perception is that such a rule penalizes two working people.
The eligibility rules have become even more complex with the culture being more steeped in divorce than ever before. But when considering the impact on spousal benefits it is worth mentioning here. If a spouse is eligible based on the 10 year criteria stated earlier, once that spouse remarries they are no longer able to file a claim against their former spouse. But if that second marriage ends up in divorce or the remarried spouse becomes a widow or widower, then they are able to get benefits based on the first spouse’s monthly benefit check.
These are the broad strokes of your rights as a spouse under the current Social Security law. Before closing, there is an important note to the FRA. By the spouse choosing to file before they reach their FRA they open themselves up to a benefit earnings test. If you are still working, and depending on how much money you earn from that work, you may find yourself with a reduced benefit amount or you may completely lose it altogether. In addition, the monthly spousal benefit you receive may be subject to income tax.
Spousal benefits are some of the most complicated in the Social Security benefit eligibility pages. This has been a starting point. The simplest scenario is where one spouse worked, the other didn’t, and both stayed married for their entire lives. In retrospect, this is likely to have been what was envisaged by the creators of the system. Today, the more complicated your life has been, the more closely you will have to look at whether or not you can benefit as a spouse.