Over 65 million Americans receive benefits through Social Security. While most people pay into Social Security over the course of their career to receive benefits, some people often wonder whether a spouse can also receive Social Security. The rules and benefit amounts vary based on whether a spouse has worked and built enough credits to receive benefits.
Here's what you need to know about Social Security spousal benefits, when to apply for them, how Social Security determines your benefit amount and how you can maximize these benefits.
What is Social Security?
Social Security is the government's social insurance program created in the 1930s to provide supplemental income to workers age 65 and older after they retire or once they enter their later working years. The program also covers disabled workers and survivors of deceased workers.
Can Both Spouses Collect Social Security?
Both spouses can receive Social Security benefits. Each spouse can claim benefits based on their earnings and if they have enough work credits. To qualify for Social Security, you must have at least 40 credits, which you earn when you pay Social Security taxes throughout the year. An individual can earn a maximum of up to four credits per year.
However, a husband or wife also can receive spousal benefits, which are based on their spouse's earnings. The maximum spousal benefit is equal to 50% of the amount their spouse will receive at their full retirement age. For example, if your full retirement age is 67 and you are entitled to a $2,000 monthly benefit, your spouse would be eligible to receive a $1,000 monthly benefit.
Survivors benefits are another type of spousal benefit. These benefits are for dependents, widows and widowers of eligible workers. When someone dies, their spouse or children could be eligible to receive their Social Security benefits. The benefit amount varies, but if a widow or widower has reached their full Social Security retirement age at the time of their spouse's death, they will receive 100% of their spouse's benefit. If they are younger, disabled or caring for a minor child, they could receive anywhere from 71.5% to 99% of their late spouse's benefit.
Important Rules for Spousal Benefits
Spousal benefits can affect retirement benefits. If you're applying to claim Social Security benefits, you must file for spousal benefits at the same time. The Social Security Administration (SSA) then will compare the spousal benefit to your spouse's own retirement benefits based on their earnings history and pay out the larger of the two amounts. For example, if you're entitled to an $800 retirement benefit based on your own earnings history or a $1,000 spousal benefit based on your spouse's earnings, you'll receive the $1,000 spousal benefit because this amount is higher. A spouse must be at least age 62 to receive these benefits. If a spouse has never worked, they are eligible for the spousal benefit based on their husband or wife's earning history.
To receive spousal benefits, you can apply online, in-person at a local Social Security Office or by phone beginning at three months before you turn 62. You'll likely need your birth certificate, proof of citizenship or alien status, marriage certificate, W-2 or self-employed tax return, if applicable. The SSA will ask a series of questions to confirm your eligibility. If you qualify, you can decide what month you'd like your benefits to begin.
How Can Both Spouses Collect Social Security? Tips for Maximizing Benefits
The SSA has changed the rules around restricted applications, which previously allowed people to apply for spousal benefits first and then delay collecting their own retirement benefits. However, this rule exclusively applies to those born before Jan. 1, 1954. Anyone born after this date must apply for spousal and retirement benefits simultaneously.
To maximize spousal benefits, don't claim your own retirement benefits early, because doing so will reduce your own benefits and the spousal benefit. If you delay collecting benefits until you're 70, you can increase both benefits. Also, if you were born before Jan. 1, 1954, take advantage of the rule that allows you to claim spousal benefits before your own retirement benefit to build up more credits that also can increase your benefit amount.
Deciding which strategy to choose will depend on your family's financial situation. However, being aware of all your options and Social Security's rules can ensure you and your spouse get the benefits you're entitled to as soon as you're eligible.