Personal Finance | November 22, 2019

Social Security for Spouses

Dear Reader,

Thank you for the question. The Social Security system is complex across the board, and spousal (and ex-spousal) benefits may be the most complicated of all, whether you’re married, divorced or widowed. But as confusing as the system is, it’s definitely worth digging into the details—especially for women, who face unique financial challenges when it comes to retirement: namely, longer lifespan, lower pay, less time in the workforce and often a lower Social Security benefit.

That said, all of what follows applies equally to men.

Basic spousal benefit

The spousal benefit allows a wife or husband (including a spouse who has never worked) to collect up to 50% of what a working spouse’s Social Security benefit would be at full retirement age (FRA). Here are the essentials:

  • To receive a spousal benefit, your spouse must already have filed.
  • The spousal benefit isn’t affected by reductions or increases in a working spouse’s benefits due to early or delayed filing.
  • You can file for a spousal benefit as early as age 62, but it will be reduced permanently if you file before your FRA.
  • The spousal benefit doesn’t increase if you wait to file until after your FRA—there’s no gain in waiting a minute longer.

Spousal benefit with your own benefit

A provision called “deemed filing” states that when you file for either your own benefit or a spousal benefit, you are deemed to be filing for both. However, from a practical perspective, you get only the higher of the two. (Because you’re eligible to collect only up to 50% of your spouse’s benefit, your primary benefit will typically be less than your spousal benefit only if you had a significantly shorter and/or lower-earning career than your spouse.)

There is one exception, though, that applies only to those who were born before January 2, 1954. If they have reached their FRA and not yet claimed their own benefits, they can file what’s called a “restricted application,” which lets them apply specifically for the spousal benefit and delay taking their own benefit, as it continues to grow until they reach age 70.

Those born on or after January 2, 1954 don’t qualify for a restricted application, so if your own benefit will be higher than your spousal benefit, it’s probably best to wait to file until age 70 to get the maximum Social Security benefit available to you. If your spousal benefit is higher, it’s likely best to hold out until your FRA—but not longer.

Ex-spouse benefit

Basic spousal benefits also apply to those who are divorced, were married a minimum of 10 years and are currently unmarried.

Unlike with the rule for spouses, though, your ex doesn’t need to have already filed for benefits in order for you to apply. The requirement is only that he or she be eligible to file. One caveat: If your ex hasn’t yet filed for benefits, you must have been divorced for at least two years.

If you have more than one ex-spouse (each from a marriage that lasted 10 years at minimum), you can collect on either spouse’s record but not both. Plus, your ex’s marital status doesn’t affect your eligibility. And what you collect has no effect on what your ex or her or his current spouse—or even other ex-spouses—can collect.

Survivors benefit for both spouses and ex-spouses

The rules for a surviving spouse are pretty straightforward: You’re eligible to collect up to 100% of a deceased spouse’s benefit once you’ve reached your FRA. That said, you can begin collecting as early as age 60 (or as early as age 50 for a disabled widow or widower), but, again, your benefit will be reduced.

For a surviving ex-spouse, the length of the marriage and marital status again come into play. First, the marriage had to have lasted for 10 years, and if you remarry before age 60, you’re not eligible until that marriage ends. If you remarry after age 60, you can collect survivors benefits on your ex.

And here’s a twist. If you’ve survived more than one spouse, you can choose to collect on the one with the higher benefit—and even switch between them if, for instance, a former spouse with a lower benefit dies before a former spouse with a higher benefit. Again, what you collect doesn’t affect what another widow or widower can collect.

One real plus is that, unlike with spousal benefits, you can file a restricted application to collect survivors benefits regardless of the year of your birth and let your own benefit grow up to age 70. Conversely, you could choose to take your own reduced benefit early and switch to the full survivors benefit at FRA.

Where to get more information

While the details can seem overwhelming, don’t let them deter you. The Social Security website has a number of resources designed specifically to help women understand their options, including several calculators that can help you run some of the numbers. But, as always, I suggest working with your financial advisor to determine the best strategy for you.

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