When you think of Social Security, you probably think of retired workers, but there are a lot of people who claim benefits despite never working in their lives. As long as you're married to a qualifying worker, you can receive a Social Security spousal benefit.
But it might not go as far as you'd expect. Here's how to figure out what you might get.
What is a Social Security spousal benefit?
A Social Security spousal benefit is a monthly benefit available to the spouse of a worker who qualifies for Social Security. Ex-spouses can also qualify for spousal benefits if they were married to the worker for at least 10 years and haven't remarried.
It's up to 50% of the worker's benefit at their full retirement age (FRA). That's somewhere between age 66 and 67 for today's workers. So, for example, if a worker qualifies for a $2,000 monthly benefit at full retirement age, the maximum spousal benefit would be $1,000 at the spouse's FRA.
But you could end up with a smaller amount if you claim benefits before your FRA. Every month that you claim benefits while you're under your FRA shrinks your checks, and if you sign up as soon as you become eligible at 62, you could get 30% to 35% less per check.
You cannot claim a spousal benefit until your spouse has already made a claim. If you're divorced and plan to claim a spousal benefit on your ex's work record, you don't need to wait for them to sign up. But you do need to be divorced for at least two years if you plan to claim before they do.
How much is a Social Security spousal benefit worth?
The average Social Security spousal benefit as of May 2022 is $743.24 per month. That adds up to about $8,919 per year. On its own, that's not going to go very far. But remember, workers who claim this type of benefit also have a spouse who receives their own Social Security checks based on their work history, and theirs are larger. So the couple will receive quite a bit more from the program overall.
If you want an idea of how much you'll get from a Social Security spousal benefit, your spouse should create a my Social Security account, where there's a calculator that can help them calculate what kind of benefit you would get at various claiming ages. Or, if you have an estimate of your spouse's benefit at their FRA, you can create your own my Social Security account and plug this in to find out what your spousal benefit might be worth.
Can you boost your spousal benefit?
It is possible to squeeze more out of Social Security if you're not happy with your spousal benefit, but your options are limited. The primary way to do this is to delay benefits, ideally until your FRA. That's when you qualify for your largest possible spousal benefit. But this might not be a wise move if you don't expect to live long. In that case, you should sign up as soon as you become eligible at 62 and claim benefits for as long as possible.
The only other thing you can do to boost your Social Security benefit is to work long enough to qualify for a larger benefit in your own right. You must earn at least 40 credits to qualify for Social Security. One credit equals $1,510 in earnings in 2022, and you can earn a maximum of four credits per year.
Your Social Security benefit is based on your average monthly earnings, adjusted for inflation, over your 35 highest-earning years, so you should strive to work at least that long. Otherwise, you'll have zero-income years in the mix weighing down your benefit.
If you qualify for Social Security on your own, you can still qualify for a spousal benefit if the spousal benefit is worth more than your own benefit. The Social Security Administration automatically gives you whichever amount is higher. But again, you can't claim a spousal benefit until your spouse signs up.
Even if you're a few decades away from claiming Social Security, it pays to start thinking about these things now so you can take steps to boost your benefit and get a more accurate idea of how much you need to save for retirement.
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