Many seniors rely on Social Security to cover their living expenses once they're no longer working. And while those benefits won't replace your entire former paycheck, they may, depending on when you file for them, replace a nice chunk of it.
But what if you don't have a former paycheck to replace? The good news is that even if you never held down a job, you may still be entitled to Social Security income. As long as you're married to someone who's entitled to benefits, or you're divorced from an eligible recipient, you can collect spousal benefits based on your partner or ex-partner's work record.
That said, if you did work and are entitled to a benefit of your own, you can't just double dip and take both benefits. Here's what you need to know.
How spousal benefits work when you have an earnings record yourself
If you've never worked and will be reliant on spousal benefits during retirement, you'll be eligible to collect 50% of your spouse's or ex-spouse's benefit — provided you file at full retirement age. This means that if you're married and your spouse gets a monthly benefit worth $1,800, you're entitled to $900 a month if you wait until your full retirement age to sign up for Social Security.
That said, if you have an earnings record of your own, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will pay you the higher of either your own benefit or 50% of your spouse's benefit. In other words, if you were a lower earner and are only entitled to a Social Security benefit of $850 a month, you'll be bumped up to $900 a month via spousal benefits once your current spouse files.
On the other hand, if you're entitled to a monthly benefit of $1,000 based on your own earnings record, you won't want a spousal benefit, and the SSA won't force you to take one. Rather, you'll simply collect the higher amount you're eligible for. You won't, however, get your $1,000 a month plus $900 a month in spousal benefits.
Another thing you should know is that if you're still married, you can't receive any spousal benefits until your spouse claims Social Security. In that situation, if you're entitled to a benefit of your own, you may want to claim your own benefit and collect it until you're eligible for spousal benefits. In fact, doing so could be a good strategy if your spouse is delaying his or her filing for a higher monthly benefit in return.
Speaking of delaying benefits, while you can grow your own benefit by waiting to file for it, you can't grow a spousal benefit. If your spouse is already receiving Social Security income by the time you reach full retirement age, it pays to file and collect your spousal benefits immediately.
Know the rules
Social Security is an intricate program, and when you're married, there are lots of rules to be aware of. Keep reading up on Social Security — not just alone, but with your spouse. That way, you'll put yourself in the best position to maximize the income you're entitled to.
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