Social Security spousal benefits are designed to provide retirement income for individuals who are not eligible for Social Security or whose retirement benefits would be much lower than their spouse's. Here's what you need to know about spousal benefits, how to apply for them, and how much you could be entitled to.

What are spousal benefits?
If you are at least 62 years of age and your spouse has already filed for Social Security retirement benefits, then you may qualify for spousal benefits.

Spousal benefits are designed for married individuals who earned disproportionately less than their spouses or never worked at all. One common example is when one spouse was a stay-at-home parent and perhaps worked a few part-time jobs over the years, while the other spouse worked full-time for their entire adult life.

How to apply for spousal benefits
Applying for spousal benefits is fairly easy. You can apply for spousal benefits online in the same way you would apply for your own Social Security retirement benefits. Simply go to the Social Security Administrations application page here, and you should be able to complete the application in 30 minutes or less. Alternatively, you can make an appointment to visit your local Social Security office in person, or call the SSA at 1-800-772-1213.

Before you start the application process for spousal benefits, be sure to have this information handy:

  • Date and place of birth
  • Current spouse's name, date of birth, and Social Security number
  • The date your marriage began
  • The beginning and ending dates of any previous marriages if they lasted for 10 years or more or ended in death
  • Names and birth dates of children who are under age 18 (or 19 if they're still in high school), or who became disabled before age 22
  • Information about your military service, if applicable
  • Employment details for this year and the two prior years
  • Any self-employment details for this year and the two prior years
  • Your bank account number and routing number (for direct deposit)

Be aware that after you apply, the SSA may contact you with requests for additional information or documentation.

How much will you get?
The amount of your monthly benefit depends on a few factors. First, your own work record will be evaluated, and your own retirement benefit will be determined.

Next, your spouse's full retirement benefit will be determined, and your full spousal benefit will be calculated as one-half of this amount. If you begin receiving benefits at your full retirement age, you'll receive the higher of your own calculated benefit or one-half of your spouse's benefit. So, in any case, you'll receive the highest benefit you're entitled to.

You have the option of starting spousal benefits as early as age 62. If you choose to receive your spousal benefits (or your own benefit) early, then the amount will be reduced. For spousal benefits, the permanent reduction amount is 25/36 of 1% for each month before full retirement age for the first 36 months, and then 5/12 of 1% for each month beyond that. Unlike Social Security retirement benefits based on one's own work record, there is no increase for delaying spousal benefits beyond full retirement age.

For example, let's say that you've never worked, your spouse's full retirement benefit is calculated to be $2,000 per month, and you decide to claim spousal benefits one year before your full retirement age. One-half of this amount produces a base spousal benefit of $1,000, which would be reduced by 8.33% (25/36 of 1% times 12 months) to produce your spousal benefit of $916.70.

Finally, your spousal benefit may also be reduced if you receive a pension for work not covered by Social Security, or if one or more of your spouse's children also qualifies for benefits based on your spouse's work record.

The bottom line is that spousal benefits can only increase your monthly Social Security payments, so it's worth checking to see if you might qualify.