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Here's Who Is Eligible for Social Security Spousal Benefits

By Todd Campbell - Updated Apr 12, 2019 at 5:07PM

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Spousal benefits are a valuable source of retirement income for millions, but not everyone can collect them.

More than 2.4 million Americans collect a combined $1.8 billion in Social Security spousal benefits every month, but many people won't qualify for these valuable benefits, and the amount paid in benefits will vary significantly among those who are eligible. Here's who can collect spousal benefits, how much spouses are receiving in average benefits per month, and some important things to keep in mind if you plan to take advantage of this Social Security benefit.

Nonworking spouses

If you're married and you aren't eligible for Social Security benefits based on your own work history, you can collect spousal benefits as long as you meet a few requirements.

A senior couple standing, holding money in their hands.

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

First, your partner must qualify for Social Security benefits on their own record, because spousal benefits are based on the amount of Social Security they can collect. Most workers will be eligible for at least some Social Security benefits after 10 years of unemployment in a job subject to Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) taxes.

Second, your partner needs to already be collecting Social Security to receive spousal benefits.

Third, if you're not caring for an eligible child under age 16, you'll need to be at least 62 years old to receive spousal benefits, and you'll need to be your full retirement age to collect 100% of your spousal benefits. If you claim earlier than your full retirement age, which ranges between age 66 and age 67 for people born in or after 1954, then your spousal benefits will be reduced (more on that in a minute), unless you're caring for an eligible child under age 16. If you delay collecting spousal benefits, they won't increase because of delayed retirement credits.

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Working spouses

Social Security calculates benefits for retired workers based on their inflation-adjusted 35 highest-earning years. Since most people accumulate enough work credits to be eligible for Social Security, many spouses will be eligible for spousal benefits and benefits based on their own work record. If you're one of them, then you should know that you can't pocket both benefits. Social Security will only pay you the higher of the two benefit amounts.

Older men and a woman working on computers on a table.

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

Former spouses

You may qualify for spousal benefits based on your former partner's work record even if you're divorced. You're eligible as long as you're single or widowed, your former marriage lasted at least 10 years, and you're at least age 62. Any spousal benefits you collect on your former partner won't reduce their Social Security benefits.

Divorcees are subject to the same rules as married spouses, with one difference. If the divorce occurred more than two years before filing for spousal benefits, your former spouse doesn't have to be collecting benefits for you to receive your spousal benefit.

How much money can spouses get?

The maximum spousal benefit that current or former spouses can collect is 50% of the working spouse's benefit at their full retirement age, or their primary insurance amount (PIA). To receive the 50% benefit, you must wait until your own full retirement age to file for spousal benefits. You can claim as early as age 62, but if you do, your benefit will be reduced by up to 35%.

For example, if your full retirement age is 67 and you're entitled to $500 per month in spousal benefits at full retirement age, claiming at age 62 results in $325 per month in benefits, or 35% less than if you waited until age 67. The following table shows how much benefits are reduced if you claim at age 62 based on three possible full retirement ages.

Birth Year

Full Retirement Age

At Age 62, a $500 Spousal Benefit Would Be Reduced to:

% Reduction

1943-1954

66

$350

30.00%

1957

66 and 6 months

$337

32.50%

1960 and later

67

$325

35.00%

Data source: Social Security Administration.

The exact amount in spousal benefits you'll receive will depend on your working partner's work history. However, the average spousal benefit being paid to recipients was $764.09 per month in January 2019.

What else you should know

Spousal benefits can increase your income, subjecting you to income taxes, and they can result in you failing Social Security's earnings test if you're younger than full retirement age and you continue working. Also, the government pension offset rule may kick in if you receive a government pension, reducing or potentially eliminating your spousal benefit entirely. The rules can get complex, so make sure you understand all your options before filing for your benefit.

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