How do spousal Social Security benefits work?


Q. I will turn 65 this spring and retiring, I will receive 52 weeks of a retirement package. I don’t plan to take Social Security for a while, perhaps not until I reach full retirement age in February 2026. How would spousal benefits work?
— Married and almost retired

A. Congrats on your coming retirement.

Deciding when to claim Social Security retirement benefits can be one of the most important decisions you make planning for retirement.

Let’s go over how it all works.

Social Security retirement benefits are paid to people who are “insured” and are at least 62 years old, said Jeanne Kane, a certified financial planner with OneDigital in Boonton.

To be “insured,” you will need to have worked long enough and paid Social Security taxes, she said.

Program benefits are based on your work history.

“In general, a person who is “fully insured” will have worked 10 years where they earned 40 Social Security credits in a job where they paid Social Security taxes,” she said. “You earn one credit per quarter and up to four credits per year.”

She noted that qualifications to become “insured” differ if you are a person with a disability who became disabled or blind at a younger age.

The earliest age to claim Social Security retirement benefits is at age 62, Kane said.

Full benefit age ranges between 66 and 67 based on your age. This is called your full retirement age (FRA).

If you claim early (ie. Before your FRA), your benefit will be reduced 5/9 of one percent for each month before FRA, up to 36 months, and 5/12 of one percent if the number of months exceeds 36 months, she said.

And if you claim after your FRA up to age 70, your benefit grows 8% per year, Kane said.

“Spousal benefits are available to spouses who are eligible for Social Security retirement benefits based on their own work record and to those spouses who aren’t,” she said.

To be eligible for a spousal benefit, you need to be at least 62 and be married for at least a year, she said.

If you are eligible for retirement benefits based on your own work history, Social Security will pay your benefit first, she said.

To claim a spousal benefit, the low earner must be 62 or older and the high earner must have claimed his/her own-record benefit, she said.

“For example, if your wife is 62-plus and the lower earner and she wants to claim a spousal benefit, she must wait until you take your Social Security benefit,” she said.

The claiming restriction doesn’t apply if divorced, she said.

“If divorced, you would have to have been married for 10 years to be eligible for an ex-spouse’s benefits,” she said.
Kane offered a few scenarios.

Let’s say your wife is eligible for her own benefit, wants to start her benefits at her FRA and you want to claim at your FRA. If your wife was the lower earner, she claims her benefit at FRA, and if half of your FRA was larger, she would get the additional amount up to the value of half of your FRA, Kane said.

Or, let’s say your wife is eligible for her own benefit, wants to claim early and you want to claim at your FRA. If your wife was the lower earner, she could claim early and receive a reduced amount. When you claim at your FRA, she would be eligible for an additional amount up to the value of half your FRA.

Then if you are the higher earner and claim before your FRA, you’ll earn a reduced amount. Your wife would be eligible for her benefit or for half of the reduced amount, she said.

And if you wait until after your FRA to claim your benefits up to age 70, your wife will only be eligible for half of your FRA. She doesn’t get the additional 8% growth on the spousal benefit, she said.

“If you can afford to, waiting gives you a higher benefit but it also gives your wife a higher benefit if you die before she does,” Kane said. “That’s because she would be eligible for the higher of her benefit or 100% of your benefit after you die.”

Claiming early gives you more payments at a lower amount, she said, and claiming later gives you a higher amount but fewer payments.

“If you could tell me exactly when you were going to die, we could pick the exact right time to claim. There are no crystal balls,” she said. “In general, the breakeven is around 78.”

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This story was originally published in February 2024. presents certain general financial planning principles and advice, but should never be viewed as a substitute for obtaining advice from a personal professional advisor who understands your unique individual circumstances.