Social Security 101: What are Spousal Benefits?

( – Social Security benefits are a significant source of income for millions of Americans. When deciding when to begin to draw on Social Security benefits, many American families consider how to take advantage of spousal benefits. Due to changes made in 2015, how much spousal benefits will be to your advantage may vary.

What Are Spousal Benefits?

Spousal benefits are a provision made by the Social Security office that allows for a person to claim benefits based on their spouse’s past earnings. The spousal benefit can be up to half the amount of the worker’s benefit. Eligibility for spousal benefits is determined by the following:

  • Applicant must have a spouse who has filed for Social Security benefits,
  • Be at least 62 years old or
  • Be caring for a child that is under 16, disabled, or eligible to draw on benefits from the spouse’s record.

Because of changes enacted as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, when you begin to draw on benefits and what you can expect may be different based on if you are grandfathered into the older policies, or qualify for the new policies only.

Spousal Benefits for Persons Born Before January 2, 1954

For persons born before January 2, 1954, the spouse of a person who is receiving social security benefits can file for a restricted application of spousal benefits. This means that if they paid into Social Security themselves, they can wait to begin drawing on their own earned benefits up to the age of 70 and earn the bigger delayed retirement credit while drawing on spousal benefits. This means that they can be using their spousal benefits while they wait for their own Social Security benefits to mature to their maximum amount.

Spousal Benefits for Persons Born On or After January 2, 1954

The new policy enacted in 2015 dictates that persons who reach full retirement age and were born after January 2, 1954 cannot file for spousal benefits and their own benefits later. Instead, a person can choose to draw on their benefits anytime after reaching retirement or fulfilling the other qualifications, but they will only be offered the spousal benefit or the amount they earned through their own Social Security benefits, whichever is greater at the time of applying.

Can a Divorced Person Claim Spousal Benefits?

A divorced person can still claim benefits from their spouse’s earnings if:

  • They are at least 62 years old
  • They are currently unmarried and
  • They were married to the spouse for at least 10 years.

How to Make the Most of Your Benefits

When to begin drawing on your Social Security benefits is a personal decision that each family needs to make based on their own circumstances. In order to get the maximum benefit, however, if you were born before the cut-off date in 1954, it may make the most sense for a spouse to begin drawing on their restricted spousal benefits while waiting until they reach 70 to begin drawing on their own benefits. If you choose to wait until you reach full retirement age, you can collect up to 50% of your spouse’s full benefit, while if you choose to begin drawing early the maximum amount will be closer to 32%-37% of your spouse’s benefits.

Bottom Line

Spousal benefits can be a huge asset to retired persons. Knowing which policies apply to your unique situation can help you feel confident navigating the process of deciding when and which benefits to draw from. If you qualify, using restricted spousal benefits until you begin drawing on your own benefits can help you maximize your monthly income, allowing for a long and enjoyable retirement.

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