An Introduction To Spousal And Survivor Social Security Benefits

Couples have a unique opportunity to collect benefits from their spouse’s or former spouse’s work record. Spousal Social Security benefits were designed to help supplement income where one spouse was the primary income earner. These benefits are also extremely helpful for ex-spouses and surviving spouses. 

So how do spousal benefits work and when will they impact you? Let’s find out. 

Qualifying for Spousal Benefits

If you are filing for Social Security benefits, you have two options:

  1. Only file for your own benefit using your personal work record, and receive 100% of your benefit at full retirement age.
  2. Restrict or reduce your personal benefit and take 50% of your spouse’s benefit upon your full retirement age using their work record.

If you choose to take a spousal benefit, remember that it decreases each year you collect before you reach your full retirement age. If you collect as early as possible, at 62 that benefit is reduced to less than 50% of their partner's PIA. 

There are a few other qualifications needed to receive spousal benefits:

  • You are at least 62 years old
  • You have been married for at least 1 year
  • Your spouse must already be claiming benefits

You are able to collect spousal benefits whether you have a work record or not. But if you do have a work record, the SSA will pay your benefit first and then supplement it with a spousal benefit should it be higher. Let’s take a few different scenarios. 

Mary and Mark have been married for 20 years. Mark is a VP in a global technology company and Mary stayed at home to raise their 3 kids. If Mark’s benefit at his FRA, 67, was $2,500, collecting at her FRA, also 67, Mary would be eligible for $1,250 per month. 

But if Mary worked part-time after the kids went to school and from her own work record was able to receive $1,000 per month, the SSA would pay her the $1,000 off her own record and add $250 for a spousal benefit totaling the same $1,250. 

If Mary’s benefit from her own work record surpasses that of her spousal benefit, then the SSA would pay her the higher of the two amounts. 

What About Ex-Spouses?

Divorced spouses can still claim spousal benefits should they need to. While the qualifications are a bit different, ex-spouses are still eligible for up to 50% of their former spouse’s benefit. In order to qualify:

  • You must be 62 or older
  • You have been divorced for at least 2 years
  • The marriage lasted 10 or more years
  • The person filing has not remarried 
  • Your ex-spouse is eligible for benefits

One of the most common misconceptions here is that a spousal benefit will impact the other spouse’s benefit. This is not true. Your spousal benefit does not change or impact your ex-spouse’s benefit in any way nor does it notify them when you apply for benefits. If the ex-spouse is remarried, it will also not affect the current spouse’s benefit.

Unlike married couples, ex-spouses don’t have to wait until their former spouse is collecting benefits in order to apply for their own. But if you are looking to claim spousal benefits off of an ex’s record, you must remain unmarried. The marital status of your former spouse won’t affect your ability to claim benefits.

Even for ex-spouses, waiting until FRA is the only way to receive the maximum, 50% benefit. Let’s bring Mark and Mary back to this example.

Before Mark and Mary were married, he was married to former spouse Alex for 10 years. Alex has reached her full retirement age and wants to collect spousal benefits. Even though she has a work record, the spousal benefits will help boost her monthly retirement budget. By collecting at her FRA she would be eligible for $1,250, the same as Mary.

Her own record entitles her to $500 monthly benefit and the SSA would add $750 per month for the spousal benefit, totaling $1,250.

Benefits for ex-spouses operate in a similar way, making them an accessible way to add to your retirement income plan.

How Survivor Benefits Work

Should your spouse pass away, you would be eligible for a survivor social security benefit. The first thing to note is that survivor benefits extend beyond married couples, from unmarried widow/widower to minor children to those with disabilities, to other dependents. For the purposes of this article, we are going to focus on how spouses can use the survivor benefit.

Spouses can qualify for a survivor benefit if you are at least 60 years old (50 if you have a disability) or at any time if you are caring for a minor or disabled child. But as always, benefits claimed before full retirement age are subject to a reduction. Any time before your full retirement age, a surviving spouse is eligible for 71.5% to 99% of the original benefit amount which increases to 100% at FRA or older. 

Getting Help

Social Security benefits can boost your retirement income significantly - it’s important to have a strategy in place before you start collecting! Spouses have a unique opportunity to maximize benefits. However, navigating whether to restrict your own benefits to leverage your spousal benefits can be complicated. 

We’re here to help. Schedule a meeting with us today! We’d love to talk to you about the specifics of your plan. 

Wood Smith Advisors, a woman-owned Registered Investment Advisor (RIA), is a fee-only financial services firm that partners with its clients to simplify their financial lives. We focus on women, entrepreneurs, and individuals with complex financial situations, providing objective and competent advice, education and services to help them develop and build their businesses and reach their financial goals. We can be reached by clicking here.

"Finance Made Simple" blog posts are intended for educational purposes and not for specific advice. Each person’s situation is different. Consult your financial advisor for advice relating to topics discussed.

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