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4 Things Everyone Gets Wrong About Social Security and Marriage

By Robin Hartill, CFP® - Feb 13, 2021 at 6:03AM

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An added perk of growing old with someone you love: You could get more Social Security.

The best perk of marriage is supposedly growing old with the one you love. But sometimes Social Security sweetens the deal even more. 

Social Security allows you to claim benefits on your own record or your spouse's. If you claim on your spouse's record, you'll receive up to 50% of their primary insurance amount, which is the amount they'd qualify for at full retirement age. For those with a limited work history, that can lead to a substantially higher benefit.

A senior woman receives flowers from her husband and gives him a kiss.

Image source: Getty Images.

4 myths about Social Security and marriage

The rules for Social Security spousal benefits aren't exactly straightforward, and they've changed some over the years. Here are four common misconceptions about love, marriage, and Social Security benefits.

1. Myth: You can earn delayed credits if you're claiming on your spouse's record. The truth: If you're claiming on a spouse's record, your benefits max out at your full retirement age. 

Social Security rewards those who wait. When you claim benefits based on your own work record, you'll receive an extra 8% delayed retirement credit for each year you hold off past your full retirement age until you're 70.

But you can only earn delayed retirement credits if you're claiming on your own record. If you use your spouse's record, your benefit maxes out at your full retirement age, which is 66 or 67 for most people.

2. Myth: Your spousal benefit will be 50% of your spouse's full-retirement-age benefit. The truth: Your benefit could be as little as 32.5% of your spouse's.

Fifty percent is the maximum you can get if your benefits are based on a living spouse's record. If you take benefits before your full retirement age -- no matter how old your spouse is -- your checks will be even lower. Starting benefits as soon as possible at age 62 means you'll only receive 32.5% of your spouse's full-retirement-age benefit.

3. Myth: You can take spousal benefits, then switch to your own higher benefit later on. The truth: This is only an option if you were born on or before Jan. 2, 1954.

In the past, many couples used this clever strategy known as filing a restricted application for spousal benefits to boost their Social Security. The lower-earning spouse would claim 50% of the higher-earning spouse's benefit while allowing their delayed retirement credits to accrue. Then, they'd switch over to their own higher benefit later on.

But the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 changed the rules. Now, you can only file a restricted application for spousal benefits if you were born on or before Jan. 2, 1954. Two exceptions: You're caring for a disabled child under 16, or you're eligible for both spousal benefits and disability benefits.

4. Myth: You can receive both of your benefits if one of you dies. The truth: You'll receive the higher of the two, but not both.

The rules are different for surviving spouses: If your spouse dies and you've reached full retirement age, you're eligible for survivor benefits equal to 100% of the benefit your spouse received. If you're between age 60 (or 50 if you're disabled) and your full retirement age, you'll receive between 71.5% and 99% of their benefit.

However, you won't receive their benefit on top of your own. Social Security will calculate both benefits and give you the higher of the two.

What if the marriage doesn't last?

Even if you got a divorce, you can still take benefits based on your ex-spouse's record, provided your marriage lasted at least 10 years and you've been divorced for two years. The same basic rules apply to ex-spouses as current spouses: Your benefit will be between 32.5% and 50% of their full amount, depending on when you start your checks. You can't take both benefits at once. You can't earn delayed credits for waiting past your full retirement age. Also, claiming based on their record has no impact on their benefits.

The bottom line: As long as your marriage lasted 10 years and you don't remarry, you don't have to grow old with someone you no longer love to get their Social Security.

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