• Mark Fonville, CFP

Social Security Spousal Benefits Simplified

Updated: Feb 23




You may be familiar with the phrase “what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is yours.” A motto many married people live by, it is the understanding that two people come together to share one life. They give themselves to each other and vow to work together until death do they part.


Sweet, huh?


Now is a great time to look at Social Security spousal benefits: how they work and when they make the most sense for you and your sweetheart.


Like a Rose

Robert Burns, a Romantic-era poet, gives us the image of love as a red, red rose. One that is sweetly sprung in June. The opening of the flower represents the opening of the two hearts and the invitation into the other’s lives.


That invitation to share one’s life with another includes many things that aren’t inherently thought of as romantic. One of those things is your finances.


Spousal Social Security benefits are designed to help you and your spouse with your financial management in retirement. Let’s take a look at the ins and outs of this benefit to see when it will work for you.


Spousal Benefits Explained

Social Security Spousal Benefits can be claimed under three different circumstances:

  • Current spouse

  • Widowed spouses

  • Ex-spouse - If married for over 10 years and not remarried prior to age 60

A rose by any other name. No matter the name, the benefit still smells as sweet. This might not be quite what Shakespeare had in mind when he thought up this phrase, but it certainly works with social security spousal benefits.


There are three primary types of social security spousal benefits.


Current Spouse Social Security Benefits

Spousal benefits are maximized when your spouse has contributed a maximum of 40 credits (10 years of earnings years) into the social security system. The amount of your benefit is dependent upon the earnings of your spouse.


The more your spouse paid into social security, the higher your benefits will be. Even if you never worked or contributed to social security on your own, you can still qualify for benefits.


Spousal Benefit Eligibility Requirements:

  • You must be at least 62 years old

  • Your spouse must be receiving social security retirement or disability benefits

Spousal benefits grant the spouse 50% of their spouse’s benefit once they reach full retirement age. If your own benefit is higher than 50% of your spouses, you will continue receiving your own benefit.


Example 1: One earner in family


John and Mary are a married couple and John is the primary earner in their family. John’s Social Security check is $1300 per month at full retirement age. Mary’s spousal benefit at her full retirement age is ½ of John’s benefit, even though she did not work. The most Mary can receive is $650. This benefit is often the most helpful for couples who had one person as the primary earner.


But what if both people have a work record? Your Social Security benefits are calculated first, and any spousal benefits will be added to your earned benefit.

If your benefit is less than half of your partner’s benefit, your spousal benefit will kick in to make up the difference.


Example 2: Two earners in the family


John and Mary are a married couple and both John and married work. John receives a benefit of $1300 per month at full retirement age. Mary, who worked for the first 10 years of their marriage, is eligible for $500 per month based on her own work record.


Since Mary’s benefit of $500 is less than half of John’s benefit ($650), Mary will receive a spousal benefit of $150 to make up the difference.


Remember, this only works if the lower-earner benefit is less than 50% of the higher-earner. For example, if the higher earner benefit remained at $1300 and the lower earners were $850, no spousal benefit would be granted since the $850 is more than half of $1300.


The key here is that you both begin claiming the benefit at full retirement age. If you and your spouse wait to claim Social Security until your full retirement age, you will be eligible to receive the full benefit.


If one spouse claims early, the overall benefit will be permanently reduced, which could negatively impact your retirement funds. Coordinating with your partner when each of you will begin claiming benefits will dramatically increase your retirement income.


Spousal Benefits Strategy:


Were you born before January 2, 1954? If so, you may choose to file for restricted application. This occurs when you file to receive your spouse’s benefit upon reaching your full retirement age.


Doing so allows your own benefit to grow until you reach age 70. Upon reaching age 70, you can file for your own benefit which can be substantially higher than the spousal benefit. This advanced strategy has the potential to increase your lifetime benefits by tens to sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars. But, it doesn’t work for everyone so be sure to get expert advice.


Survivor Benefits for Widows

Death can be a difficult conversation for many of us. But, when it comes to losing your spouse, it may be a bit more comforting to know that social security provides survivor benefits.


To maximize your survivor benefit, delay filing for benefits until your full retirement age. If you were born between 1945-1956, then age 66 is your full retirement age. Thereafter, full retirement age increases to age 67. However, you are able to receive reduced benefits as early as age 60.


The amount of income you receive from social security will depend on the lifetime earnings of you and your spouse.

  • In general, if you are a surviving spouse and you are at full retirement age or older, you will receive 100% of your spouse’s benefit amount or your own benefit, whichever is higher.

  • If you are a surviving spouse and you are between 60 to full retirement age, then your benefit will be 71 ½% to 99% of your spouse's benefit.

  • If you are disabled and aged 50 to 59, then you will receive 71 ½% of your spouse’s benefit.

  • If you have dependent children, you may receive additional survivor benefits based upon your age and situation.

A Thorn in the Rose - Ex Spouse Benefits

Sometimes, marriage ends in divorce. As time goes on, you may find yourself in love with a new life partner. When this happens, the decision to remarry can raise discussions around personal finances.


I’d like to bring in a quote from Mr. James Joyce, a famous Irish author, to give us a different take on combining finances. He is quoted as saying “what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is mine.” Not the romantic type, I guess. But he does bring up an interesting point: how much do you have to give up in order to remarry after divorce?


If you’ve finalized a divorce and if your marriage lasted 10 years or more, you may be entitled to surviving divorced spouse benefits. To qualify for benefits, you must be age 60 or older.


Even better news, your former spouse won’t lose benefits just because you receive benefits based on his or her work record. This can help avoid the potential for awkward conversations with your former spouse.


How much are benefits? Your benefits will be calculated based on your former spouse’s earnings record and your own.


It’s possible that getting remarried can have a positive or negative impact on your social security benefits. While we’d never condone avoiding marriage based on finances alone, be sure to talk to the social security administration before you tie the knot.


Grow Your Own Garden

Spousal Social Security benefits are often misunderstood by many Americans. They are put in place in order to help married couples with their retirement income. But as you can see from above, the concept of maximizing social security spousal benefits is much more complicated than meets the eye.


It is important to have open, honest, and transparent conversations with your spouse or partner about what arrangement makes you most comfortable and how you will make your finances bloom for years to come.


Need help with starting these conversations, or want a mediator there to help facilitate them?


Contact us today! We’d love to help you start an open conversation with your spouse or partner about social security benefits and estate planning.




Mark Fonville, CFP®


Mark is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ and President of Covenant Wealth Advisors, a wealth management and fee-only financial planning firm in Williamsburg and Richmond, VA.

Read Mark's bio



Disclosures: Covenant Wealth Advisors is a registered investment advisor. Past performance is no guarantee of future returns. Investing involves risk and possible loss of principal capital.The views and opinions expressed in this content are as of the date of the posting, are subject to change based on market and other conditions.


This content contains certain statements that may be deemed forward-looking statements. Please note that any such statements are not guarantees of any future performance and actual results or developments may differ materially from those projected. Please note that nothing in this content should be construed as an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any security or separate account.

Nothing is intended to be, and you should not consider anything to be, investment, accounting, tax or legal advice. If you would like accounting, tax or legal advice, you should consult with your own accountants, or attorneys regarding your individual circumstances and needs. No advice may be rendered by Covenant Wealth Advisors unless a client service agreement is in place.

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