When Can a Spouse Claim Spousal Benefits?

Social Security exists to provide a financial safety net for retired individuals in the United States. However, navigating the Social Security Administration’s procedures for filing claims for benefits is anything but intuitive, especially when it comes to spouse’s benefits. Suppose your spouse has retired and started claiming benefits from the Social Security Administration. In that case, it is vital to understand how spousal benefits work, how to claim benefits, and what you can expect from your benefit disbursements. The timing of your filing can significantly influence the spousal Social Security benefits you receive as well.

An experienced family law attorney is a great resource if you are confused about the filing process or any other aspect of the Social Security benefits program for spouses. Your attorney can help you gather the documentation you will need to provide to the Social Security Administration to rule on your claim for spousal benefits and help you understand what to expect.

Eligibility for Spousal Social Security Benefits

When you file a claim for spousal benefits with the Social Security Administration, they will assess many different factors to determine your eligibility. Some of these factors include:

  • Your age. When you file for spousal benefits with the Social Security Administration, your filing age is one of the most important factors the Social Security Administration will consider when determining the benefits you are entitled to receive. Generally, the earliest you can file for spousal benefits is 62, but this may be reduced in some situations, such as if you have a disability. However, it is generally best to wait as long as possible to avoid a reduction to your benefit award.
  • The amount of your spouse’s Social Security benefits. If your spouse retires and files for Social Security benefits, like the spouse, you may be eligible for your own spousal benefits based on the amount of benefits your retiring spouse receives. It’s important to remember that if you qualify for your own benefit, the Social Security Administration will compare your earned benefit to the amount you would receive in spousal benefits and award you whichever is higher.
  • Your other retirement benefits. Social Security benefits fluctuate if you have other retirement benefits available to you. If you do, you should expect to receive less in spousal benefits than you would if you had no other retirement benefits available to you. This is important to keep in mind if you receive any government pension as it will reduce the amount you receive in spousal Social Security benefits.
  • Your spouse’s age and work history. The maximum amount of spousal benefits you can potentially receive from the Social Security Administration is 50 percent of the amount your spouse receives. The amount they receive is based on their age at retirement and how long they paid into the Social Security system through their employment.
  • Your age and work history. These factors also influence your eligibility to seek spousal benefits from the Social Security Administration. You will need to prove your work history and past Social Security contributions if you seek spousal benefits. While the Social Security Administration retains records of each individual’s work history and Social Security contributions, it’s vital to maintain your own records so you can ensure your benefits application is as complete and accurate as possible.

It is also important to remember that you can be eligible for spousal benefits if you are currently married, divorced, or widowed. The length and timing of your marriage will also come into play when you seek spousal benefits from the Social Security Administration, so it should be easy to see how complex this process can be for some claimants.

If your own work history entitled you to a greater amount of Social Security benefits when you decide to claim, the Social Security Administration would award you this higher benefit amount instead.

Your Age and Social Security Benefits

The Social Security Administration generally recommends waiting until the formally accepted retirement age of 67 before claiming Social Security benefits. However, it is technically possible to start claiming benefits at age 62. If you decide to claim early, the amount you receive in spousal benefits is permanently reduced. Ultimately, you must decide whether it is worth it in your situation to claim early and receive fewer benefits than you would have received had you waited until age 67.

Age does not apply in some situations, namely those involving the care of a dependent child under the age of 16 or a disabled adult child. If you provide care for any child on your spouse’s record who would qualify for benefits, you can start the spousal benefits claim process at any age. Additionally, if the spouse filing for spousal benefits is caring for a qualifying child, the spousal benefit amount is not reduced, even if they file before normal retirement age.

Parents who intend to file for Social Security benefits before reaching full retirement age must also research the other programs that may help, such as Supplemental Security Income and Disability Benefits through the Social Security system. An experienced attorney can help parents in this situation explore their options for maximizing the amount of government assistance they receive from Social Security.

Early Retirement and Reduced Benefits

Under normal circumstances, claiming spousal benefits before reaching normal retirement age can reduce your spousal benefits significantly. While the maximum amount a spouse may receive is 50 percent of their spouse’s benefit amount, claiming early could result in as little as 32.5 percent of their spouse’s benefit amount. The Social Security Administration will reduce a spouse’s benefit amount by 25/36 of 1 percent for every month between their filing and their normal retirement age. If they file more than 36 months ahead of time, the Social Security Administration will reduce their benefits by a further 5/12 of 1 percent for each subsequent month beyond the first 36 months.

It is almost always in your best interests to wait as long as possible to claim Social Security benefits, ideally until age 70, when you will have accumulated the most credits on your retirement benefits. While this is not possible for everyone seeking Social Security benefits, you should understand how your claim’s timing will influence the amount of benefits you receive and how other factors will impact your final benefit amount.

Other Retirement Benefits’ Impact on Spousal Benefits

If you intend to claim spousal Social Security benefits and are eligible for other government-funded benefits, the amount you receive is reduced based on the other retirement benefits you receive. For example, if you qualify for a government pension of $300 per month, and the Social Security Administration determines that you qualify for an $800 per month spousal benefit, they will reduce your spousal benefits by two-thirds of the amount of your pension benefit.

Using this calculation, your $300 per month pension would effectively reduce your spousal benefit by $200, leaving you with $300 per month from your pension and only $600 per month in spousal Social Security benefits. It’s important to remember that if you receive any government pension, you likely already qualify for your own Social Security benefits, and the subject of spousal benefits could be moot for your situation.

Social Security Benefits for Divorced and Widowed Spouses

Many people do not realize they are qualified to receive Social Security benefits even if they are no longer married to their spouse or if their spouse has died. These are some of the most difficult spousal benefits cases to manage, and it is very important to seek legal assistance if you are in either type of situation or if you are unsure how to proceed with your claim for spousal benefits. People who intend to claim Social Security benefits following divorce or the death of a spouse typically must provide extensive documentation to accompany their claims.

If you have divorced your spouse, you can still qualify for spousal Social Security benefits based on your ex’s work history. Many of the rules are still the same; you must file for your own benefits first, and the Social Security Administration will review your other retirement benefits to determine your eligibility. However, you must meet two additional criteria: You must have been married for at least 10 years, and you must be unmarried at the time of your filing.

If you have been divorced for at least two years at the time of your filing, you are legally able to file for spousal benefits even if your ex-spouse has not filed for benefits. If your ex-spouse is still alive, you must be at least 62 years old to file for spousal benefits, and your ex must be old enough to qualify for Social Security benefits. Whether they have claimed benefits at this time does not matter for your filing. If your ex-spouse has died, your filing process will follow the rules pertaining to widowed spouses. Generally, you should wait as long as possible before filing for spousal benefits based on an ex-spouse’s work history, but if you intend to marry again in the future, you must understand how your new marriage will alter your options for securing benefits.

Survivor Benefits for Widowed Spouses

Widows and widowers may qualify for up to 100 percent of their spouse’s benefit if the surviving spouse has reached full retirement age. However, if the survivor is under full retirement age but at least age 60, the survivor’s payment amount reduces to somewhere between 71 percent and 99 percent of the deceased’s entitled benefit amount.

Both divorced and widowed spouses who are disabled can file for spousal Social Security benefits as early as age 50. The Social Security Administration provides a more streamlined claim process to help individuals in this situation avoid delays in receiving their first benefit payments. It is also important to remember that you may qualify for spousal benefits even if your spouse died before reaching normal retirement age. Employees who pay into Social Security accumulate annual credits for working. If your deceased spouse earned credits for at least 10 years, you qualify for a spousal benefit, but it is still best to wait until you reach full retirement age to receive the maximum amount of benefits.

If your spouse dies while you are receiving spousal benefits, you must notify the Social Security Administration immediately. Your spousal benefit, which may only be up to 50 percent of your deceased spouse’s benefit, will convert to a survivor benefit, entitling you to receive 100 percent of their benefit amount. Be sure to notify the Social Security Administration of your spouse’s death as soon as possible, as the increase to your benefits will not apply retroactively.

Tips for Maximizing Your Spousal Social Security Benefit

The Social Security Administration may make it somewhat difficult to claim benefits to which you are legally entitled, but as long as you provide complete and accurate information with your claim, you can expect to receive the maximum allowable benefit based on you and your spouse’s work histories. However, the way you go about handling your claim for benefits can significantly influence the amount you receive. Keep the following tips in mind if you want to maximize the amount of Social Security benefits you receive:

  • File as late as possible, especially if you have little to no earnings history. The income earner in this situation can postpone applying for their Social Security benefits until age 70 to ensure they receive the highest allowable amount. If you were born after 1960, your full retirement age is 67. However, if the income-earner delays their Social Security retirement benefits until age 70, each year of delay will increase their benefits payments by 8 percent, but this will not influence their spouse’s benefit. This means it generally makes sense for the spouse to claim as soon as the income-earner reaches full retirement age, but the income-earner can delay their payments until 70 to increase their benefits by 8 percent for each year.
  • If you and your spouse earn equivalent income, both of you should delay your Social Security payments until age 70. The spousal benefit would likely not benefit either of you in this situation. You both would be entitled to your own individual Social Security benefits, so both of you delaying until age 70 would provide both of you with the maximum year-over-year percentage increase to your respective benefits.
  • Since divorced spouses are entitled to claim spousal benefits if they were married for 10 years or longer, you should consider your options carefully if you have multiple ex-spouses. The Social Security Administration will allow you to receive the highest available spousal benefit amount based on your ex-spouses’ work histories, but you cannot receive multiple spousal benefits from multiple past marriages. You must be married to a new spouse after 60 for at least one year before you are eligible to claim spousal benefits.
  • Widowed spouses should consider their options carefully if they remarry. For example, if you remarry after age 60, this will not affect your eligibility to claim survivors’ benefits. However, claiming a spousal benefit based on your new spouse’s income and work history may offer a greater benefit than your survivor benefit based on your deceased spouse’s work record.
  • Claim survivor benefits before your own benefits. One of the best strategies for widowed spouses is to claim their survivor benefits in the early years of their retirement while delaying their own Social Security benefits, so they accumulate credits. Once you reach age 70, you can switch to receiving your own benefits that have appreciated in value.

Hopefully, these tips will help clarify your situation and help you determine the best way to approach your claim for Social Security benefits, whether that includes your own benefits, survivor benefits, or spousal benefits. Remember, the most crucial factor in receiving Social Security benefits is the timing of your claim. You must carefully review both you and your spouse’s respective work histories and benefits eligibility.

Can an Attorney Help Me File for Social Security Benefits?

Navigating the claims processes of the Social Security Administration is no easy task. You must provide complete financial records and finalize your application for benefits entirely accurately. While the Social Security Administration maintains records of all employees who pay into the Social Security system, mishaps can happen, and your records may not align with those kept by the Social Security Administration.

Additionally, many people who reach retirement age contend with medical issues and financial matters related to the end of their working years. If you are in any position to start thinking about claiming Social Security benefits, you may likely be facing difficult financial issues that you are unsure how to navigate. If you find yourself in this situation, one of the best things you can do to protect yourself is to contact an experienced family law attorney as soon as possible. Your attorney can help you gather the paperwork you will need to submit with your claim filing, help you handle a contested or denied claim, and provide you with guidance to maximize your spousal benefits through the Social Security system.

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