Social Security provides benefits to tens of millions of retired workers. But it also offers benefits to spouses of those workers, and several million spouses rely on those spousal benefits as the sole or primary source of payments they get from Social Security. Understanding whether and how you can claim spousal benefits is important in order to make the best decision possible, so let's take a closer look at the rules governing spousal Social Security benefits.
Eligibility for spousal benefits
There are several eligibility requirements that govern spousal benefits. In order for a current spouse to receive spousal benefits based on a worker's earnings history, the spouse must have been married to the worker for at least one year before applying for benefits. There's an exception to this rule if the couple are both natural parents of a minor child, in which case no minimum period applies.
In addition, a current spouse must generally have reached age 62 to claim spousal benefits, and the worker must have filed for benefits on the worker's own earnings history. Spouses of any age can receive benefits if they are caring for the worker's children who also receive Social Security benefits. This most commonly applies when the children are either minors, full-time high-school students, or disabled.
Divorced spouses are also entitled to spousal benefits under certain circumstances, but the eligibility requirements are different. The divorced spouse must have been married to the worker for at least 10 years in order to qualify. In addition, the divorced spouse must not be remarried. However, the requirement that the worker have filed for Social Security retirement benefits does not apply to divorced spouses as long as the worker is eligible to file for them and as long as the couple has been divorced for at least two years.
How spousal benefits work with your own retirement benefits
In some cases, spouses aren't eligible for Social Security in their own right because of a lack of work history, and their spousal benefit is the only money they're eligible to receive from Social Security. For those who have a work record of their own, spousal benefits get more complicated.
Typically, when you apply for retirement benefits, you'll also be deemed to have applied for any spousal benefits to which you're entitled as well. The Social Security Administration will compare your retirement benefit based on your work record with the spousal benefit you'd be entitled to receive under your spouse's work history. If the spousal benefit is greater, then the SSA pays treats your monthly benefit as coming from two sources: your retirement benefit up to that amount, with the excess representing the spousal benefit.
In the past, Social Security law allowed spouses who had reached full retirement age to restrict their Social Security application solely to spousal benefits, leaving their own retirement benefits unclaimed. New laws passed in late 2015 eliminated the ability to use that strategy, instead imposing the deemed-filing rules on Social Security recipients of all ages. However, phase-in provisions still give those who turned 62 by the end of 2015 the right to restrict their application for spousal benefits only. Younger Social Security recipients will have to claim retirement and spousal benefits at the same time.
Making the most of spousal benefits
To get more information about spousal benefits, the SSA website has useful information. This link will take you to a page specifically talking about benefits for you as a spouse and how they coordinate with other benefits.
As two-worker families have become more common, more couples have had sufficient retirement benefits through Social Security that spousal benefits have played a smaller role than in the past. Nevertheless, many families can get more money from Social Security by exploring spousal benefits and incorporating them into their financial planning for retirement.