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How Spousal Social Security Benefits Work

Social Security claiming strategies can be difficult to navigate. Let’s start with some basics. If you were born in 1960 or later your full retirement age (FRA) is age 67. Full retirement age is the age at which you can claim full Social Security benefits. If you elect to claim Social Security earlier or later, your benefit is increased (for delaying) or decreased (for starting sooner).

A quick overview of spousal and survivor benefits. A spouse can take the greater of their own benefit or 50% of their spouse’s benefit, provided their spouse has commenced benefits. However, starting Social Security early reduces the amount in either case.

Here’s a quick example of a married couple, Mary & Bob, both age 62. Mary’s monthly Social Security benefit at FRA is projected to be $1,200 per month. Bob’s benefit at FRA projects to be $3,300 per month. Let’s look at this example under three different scenarios, where Mary claims her benefit, where she claims a spousal benefit, and where she claims a survivor benefit.

Scenario 1 (Mary claims her Social Security benefit early): If Mary decides to commence Social Security at age 62 her benefit would be reduced by 30% to $840 per month. Since Bob is still working, she can’t claim a spousal benefit (which would be higher than her benefit). To see how claiming early reduces your benefit check out this calculator. 

Scenario 2 (Bob retires and Mary claims her spousal benefit): When Bob retires as at age 67 (his FRA) Mary can file for her spousal benefit, but since she commenced her Social Security early, it will be reduced by 30%. In this example her benefit would be $3,300 x 50% = $1,650 x 70% = $1,155.

Scenario 3 (Bob dies and Mary claims her survivor benefit): Survivor benefits are different from spousal benefits. As a spouse, Mary’s survivor benefit changes to what Bob was receiving. In this example $3,300 per month. There is no reduction in the survivor benefit due to her early claim on her benefit.

There are lots of other possible landmines when it comes to Social Security such as earnings penalties for those who continuing working while receiving benefits and understanding delayed retirement credits, so seek expertise when making benefit choices.

The important takeaway to remember is when either spouse claims Social Security before FRA, the benefits that person is or will become entitled can be reduced accordingly.