More than 2.3 million Americans currently receive Social Security spousal benefits. The average benefit is almost $800 per month, and some spouses receive significantly more.1 These valuable benefits can make a big difference in funding retirement for a married couple and might result in higher total benefits, even if both spouses have their own work records.
Spousal benefits can be confusing, and it’s important to fully understand your eligibility and options. For clarity, these guidelines are presented from the point of view of the individual filing for spousal benefits.
Basic Spousal Benefits
To receive a spousal benefit, you generally must be age 62 or older and married for at least one year to an eligible worker who is receiving or has filed for Social Security benefits. The maximum spousal benefit is equal to 50% of your spouse’s primary insurance amount (PIA), the amount he or she would receive at full retirement age. If you elect to receive a spousal benefit before your full retirement age, you will receive a permanently reduced benefit (see chart). There are special rules for divorced spouses and spouses caring for a dependent child, as discussed below.
If your spouse claims benefits before reaching full retirement age, his or her worker benefit would be permanently reduced, but your spousal benefit would still be based on your spouse’s primary insurance amount.
Filing Age and Spousal Benefits
Worker benefits and spousal benefits are based on full retirement age (FRA) — 66 (birth years 1943 to 1954), 66 and 2 months to 66 and 10 months (1955 to 1959), and 67 (1960 and later). This chart is based on FRA of 67.
Spousal benefit as a percentage of worker’s primary insurance amount
Percentages are adjusted incrementally for other FRAs or filing ages. If your birthday is the first day of the month, the Social Security Administration calculates your benefit as if you were born in the previous month.
Source: Social Security Administration, 2021
Spousal and Worker Benefits
In general, if you are eligible for a spousal benefit and a benefit based on your own work record, the Social Security Administration will pay you whichever amount is higher. If you are initially eligible only for your own worker benefit and later become eligible for a higher spousal benefit (after your spouse files for worker benefits), you will receive an additional amount equal to the difference between the spousal benefit and your own PIA. This is sometimes called the spousal boost.
If you filed for your worker benefit before you reached full retirement age, your combined benefit may be lower than your spousal benefit would have been if you had waited for your spouse to file. You cannot switch from a spousal benefit to a higher worker benefit if you were born after January 1, 1954.
If you were born on or before January 1, 1954, and have not yet claimed your own worker benefit, you are eligible to file a restricted application for a spousal benefit. This allows you to receive a spousal benefit while earning delayed retirement credits on your own work record, which could increase your worker benefit by 8% for each year you delay claiming, up to age 70. You can claim your own worker benefit at any time after you file the restricted application.
This strategy may result in higher total lifetime benefits for you and your spouse. As long as you meet all requirements, you can file a restricted application even if your spouse filed before full retirement age and/or was born after January 1, 1954.
You may be able to collect benefits based on a former spouse’s work history if you were married for at least 10 years and are currently unmarried. This won’t affect the benefits that your former spouse receives, even if he or she has remarried.
Eligibility for spousal benefits is triggered when your former spouse claims benefits or, if you have been divorced for at least two years, when your former spouse becomes eligible for benefits, regardless of whether he or she has claimed them. If your former spouse suspends benefits, you can still receive spousal benefits during the suspension. (This is not true for married spouses.)
As with regular spousal benefits, the maximum benefit for a divorced spouse is 50% of the former spouse’s PIA, and the spousal benefit is permanently reduced if you file before your own full retirement age. All other provisions that apply to married spouses also apply to eligible divorced spouses.
Spouse Caring for a Dependent Child
If you’re caring for a child under age 16 who is receiving benefits based on your spouse’s work record, you may be eligible for a spousal benefit regardless of your age. Your spousal benefit will end when the child turns 16 unless you are old enough to receive benefits based on your age. You can apply for a spousal benefit again when you reach age 62 or later.
Reductions in Spousal Benefits
As with worker benefits, spousal benefits may be reduced by the retirement earnings test if you work before reaching full retirement age and earn more than certain annual limits. A spousal benefit might also be reduced if you are receiving a pension from work not covered by Social Security, such as government employment.
For more information about spousal benefits, see ssa.gov/benefits/retirement/planner/applying7.html.