Claiming Social Security Spousal Benefits? These 3 Rules May Surprise You

If you’re married — or divorced after at least 10 years of marriage — you have more choices when it comes to your Social Security checks. Specifically, you may be better off claiming spousal benefits based on your husband or wife’s work, record rather than claiming your own benefit.

Opting for spousal benefits will usually net you more money if your partner was a higher earner than you. But there are a few special rules that apply to these benefits that you need to know about. Here are three of them.

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1. Early filing penalties reduce your monthly income

Spousal benefits could be worth up to 50% of your husband or wife’s standard benefit (this is the amount your partner would receive at their full retirement age). So if your spouse whose record you are claiming benefits on was eligible for a monthly payment of $1,500, you could receive up to $750 per month in spousal benefits.

The key thing to note, though, is that this is the maximum. You’ll end up with substantially less if you start spousal benefits before your full retirement age. That’s true regardless of how old your mate is. If the primary earner claims benefits at FRA but you start your checks when you’re just 62, early filing penalties could reduce your monthly Social Security check to as little as 32.5% of your partner’s standard benefit — down from 50%.

Before starting your checks early, make certain you’re aware of this major potential downside.

2. You can’t claim your spousal benefits until your spouse has

If you’re eager to claim spousal benefits, you may be faced with an unpleasant surprise if your partner is putting off filing for their own checks. That’s because you can’t claim until the primary earner starts getting their own Social Security retirement money.

This rule doesn’t apply if you’ve been divorced for at least two years and are claiming spousal benefits. But others who will be getting retirement checks based on a mate’s work history will find they have no choice but to wait.

The good news is you’re allowed to claim your own retirement benefits in the meantime — as long as you qualify based on your own work history and are at least 62. In fact, it’s a common strategy for the lower earner to start their benefits first to allow their spouse to put off a claim and avoid having early filing penalties applied to the larger monthly benefit.

3. You can’t earn delayed retirement credits even though your spouse can

A primary earner claiming benefits on their own work history can actually increase the amount of money they get above and beyond their standard benefit amount.

They can do this by waiting beyond their full retirement age and earning delayed retirement credits. Credits are available until 70, and increase a standard benefit by 2/3 of 1% per month, or up to 8% for each full year of delay.

While it often pays off for a primary earner to wait to get this extra money, retirees claiming spousal benefits can’t increase their checks using this approach. Delayed retirement credits aren’t available for spousal benefits, which can’t go above 50% of the primary earner’s standard benefit.

Since you get no bonus for waiting, there’s no benefit to delaying the start of spousal benefits beyond your full retirement age. You still might have to wait, though, if your spouse hasn’t yet unlocked eligibility by claiming their own checks.

Knowing all three of these rules is vital to making an informed choice about when you want your spousal benefits to begin, so make sure you understand their implications and work with your partner to make decisions about Social Security that make the most sense for both of you.

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