Social Security: How do spousal benefits work?
If you were born after 1929, have 40 credits of earnings history (e.g. 10 years’ of work), and are at least 62 years of age, you are eligible to collect Social Security retirement benefits. (Note that I didn't include being a U.S. citizen as being a requirement...because it isn't one.)
But what about folks who don't have the requisite quarters of earnings history but are married to someone who does?
Under Social Security's rules, a spouse of someone who meets the collection criteria is eligible to collect a partial benefit from the primary worker's earnings history provided the spouse also meets the appropriate collection criteria:
- Must be at least age 62; or
- Be of any age and caring for a child younger than 16, or disabled, entitled to receive benefits on the spouse's record.
In addition to the criteria above, the marriage must have been in effect at least nine months at the time of the application and the primary worker must have filed for benefits for the spouse to collect off of his or her record (except in cases of divorce).
So how much might you be entitled to collect off of your spouse's earnings record? It depends, but generally, approximately half. For example, if you were to begin collecting spousal benefits off of your spouse at your age 66, you'd be entitled to 50% of your spouse's Full Retirement Age benefit. And while individuals collecting off of their own retirement benefit receive 8% increases per year for every year they delay past Full Retirement Age, spousal benefits don't receive such increases.
If you're planning to collect off of your spouse's record, there's little incentive to delay past your own Full Retirement Age. Assuming your Full Retirement Age is 66, if you were to collect spousal benefits at age 62, a 30% discount is applied to the amount you'd be entitled collect. In other words, the spouse who started collecting at 62 would be entitled to collect 35% of the primary worker's Primary Insurance Amount.
In terms of dollars, let's say your spouse's Full Retirement Age benefit (also known as the Primary Insurance Amount) is $2,500 per month. If you were to begin collecting a spousal benefit at your Full Retirement Age, say 66 years old, you'd be entitled to collect 50% of this amount or $1,250. But what if you decided to collect off of your spouse's record when you turn 62? You would still be entitled to collect a benefit; however, you're collecting early, so a 30% discount (per Social Security's rules) would be applied to your 50% share, reducing your monthly benefit to $875.
Clear as mud, right? While determining an optimal strategy for Social Security collection is fairly straightforward, the rules are remarkably complex and need to be understood in the context of your specific situation. See our article on Social Security collection strategies for further insight on how to navigate that complexity.