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Social Security Spousal Benefits

Many married couples find navigating Social Security daunting, especially as it relates to understanding Social Security spousal benefits. Not only can you make Social Security claiming mistakes, but your decisions can potentially cost you large amounts of retirement income. Today, we’ll tackle how the spousal benefit works, how to maximize your benefit, and even discuss end of life survivor scenarios. We’ll even touch on benefits for a divorced spouse.


There are three distinct Social Security benefits: 

  1. Retired Worker Benefit – This is your benefit that can be claimed off of your own work record. I covered this topic in the podcast, Should You Take Social Security at 62.
  2. Spousal Benefit – This is the topic we’re going to cover today. This is the benefit that becomes active once the primary worker’s benefit is activated. Not everyone will be eligible to receive this benefit (i.e. if your own working record is too high).
  3. Widow(er) or Survivor Benefit – This the benefit that provides a surviving spouse with a benefit after the worker’s death.

While today’s podcast will cover this topic at a high level, I’d suggest watching our online
on-demand Social Security class that we teach in person or you can even schedule a time to discuss your various options one-on-one with our office.


A spousal benefit can add additional Social Security income to a household during retirement. It was created in a time when many women stayed home to raise children. It can be accessed even if a spouse never worked outside the home. To qualify, there are a few basic rules to understand.

  • You must be married for at least a year to claim the spousal benefit.
  • The primary worker must have filed for Social Security. This is much like a dam that lets water out of a reservoir. If the dam doesn’t let out water, there isn’t water in the river below the dam. It’s the same with Social Security spousal benefit. When the primary worker files his/her benefit the dam then releases water and the lower earning spouse can then access spousal benefits once they meet other criteria.
  • In most cases, to qualify for the spousal benefit, your own benefit that’s based on your own working record, can’t be greater than half of the primary worker’s PIA. PIA (primary insurance amount) is the amount that the primary worker will get when they claim Social Security at full/normal retirement age. 
  • Another way of saying this is the spousal benefit can be up to 50% of your spouse’s PIA (not benefit amount). Knowing that the spousal benefit is based on your spouse’s PIA and not the benefit amount is an important distinction. For example, if the primary spouse starts Social Security at 62 and has a permanent reduction in their monthly benefit, that doesn’t impact the spousal benefit as it is based on the PIA of the primary worker, not when the primary worker filed for their benefits (while the spousal benefit isn’t impacted by when the primary worker files for their benefit, it does impact the survivor benefit when the primary worker passes away).

To illustrate, let’s say John and Jane have been married for 15 years. if John was the primary worker and his PIA benefit was $2,000, Jane would be eligible for up to $1,000 at full retirement age. She would not be able to claim a spousal benefit if John had not yet filed.

When Jane files, she would first get her benefit based on her own working record and then the spousal benefit would provide a boost up to 50% of John’s PIA. Say, for example, that Jane’s Social Security benefit on her own working record was $600 per month at full retirement age. When she takes her spousal benefit at full retirement age it could add another $400. If she doesn’t have a Social Security benefit based on her own work record she could still get $1,000.

In the opposite direction, if Jane’s benefit based on her own work record was $1,200, she wouldn’t qualify for the spousal benefit as the amount she is eligible for is no greater than 50% of the higher earner’s PIA.


As we’ve discussed, the spousal benefit has two moving parts. One is your own benefit based on your own work history, which you can see on your own Social Security statement. To see this benefit amount I’d encourage you to set up an account at or look at the most recent statement you’ve received in the mail. This benefit can be permanently reduced if you take it early or permanently higher if you take it later. Note, that you would never want to wait until past age 70.

The second moving part of the total spousal benefit is the boost you’ll receive if your own PIA is less than 50% of the higher earner. In the previous example, Jane had her own benefit at full retirement age of $600 and then a spousal boost of $400. If, instead of waiting until full retirement age she claimed at 62 and the higher earner had already filed, she would have her own benefit of $600 permanently reduced by at least 25% to around $450 (this is just an estimate if full retirement age is at 66 and your reduction may be different). The spousal benefit would be reduced by 30% and instead of $400 only get about $280. So, by taking early her benefit would be around $730 per month.

As an additional note, if you take Social Security early, your benefit may be reduced due to the earning test, which I talk about in an earlier podcast.


There is however, a major difference between your primary benefit maximum and the spousal benefit maximum. After your full retirement age, your own benefit will experience DRCs (delayed retirement credits) of 8% per year, whereas your spousal boost won’t increase after full retirement age. In other words, it doesn’t make sense to wait to claim Social Security if you’re trying to get the spousal benefit to grow after full retirement age.


Many divorced spouses who were the lower earning spouse due to raising children or other factors mistakenly believe they don’t have access to Social Security spousal benefits. If you were married at least 10 years before you divorced and are not currently married, the same benefit amounts and reductions apply for early claiming as a current spouse.

Your claiming Social Security benefits based on your spouse’s working record doesn’t affect the current spouse or other dependents. In addition, your ex is not notified by SSA that you are claiming benefits. If you’ve been divorced more than 2 years, your previous spouse does not have to file for benefits before you are eligible. If you’ve been divorced less than two years, you’ll need to wait to claim until your spouse has claimed.


As a general rule, at the death of the first spouse the surviving spouse can receive either his or her own benefit or the benefit of the deceased, whichever is greater. This is no longer based on PIA. In other words, if the primary worker takes their benefit early at 62 and passes away first, the surviving spouse will receive that benefit instead of their own, if it is higher.  Be aware that based on your individual circumstances, these rules may vary.

Going back to our example of John and Jane, if John were to pass away, Jane could claim his $2,000 benefit but she would no longer receive her $1,000 benefit. The bottom line is that the claiming strategy of the primary earning spouse can have a significant impact on the surviving spouse.

Your claiming Social Security benefits based on your spouse’s working record doesn’t affect the current spouse or other dependents. In addition, your ex is not notified by SSA that you are claiming benefits. If you’ve been divorced more than 2 years, your previous spouse does not have to file for benefits before you are eligible. If you’ve been divorced less than two years, you’ll need to wait to claim until your spouse has claimed.


No. DRCs don’t apply to the spousal benefit. The spousal benefit will reach its maximum at full retirement age so the latest you would want to claim the spousal benefit would be when you reach full retirement age.

Yes, if you were married for more than 10 years, are not currently married, and qualify for the spousal benefit.


After individuals attend our Social Security events they often schedule a time for us to look at their entire situation and do a Social Security analysis. We can run a free Social Security optimization report, help them make decisions on when to retire, and also create income plans to replace their paycheck once they retire.

I’d invite you to act on what you’ve learned and get a free Social Security analysis with a fiduciary comprehensive planner like us at Thrive Retirement Planning.

You can set up an appointment with us at Thrive Retirement Planning, either in person or virtually, where we can get to know each other. Simply call 801-810-8434 or go to and click on get started to learn more. We can help you make Social Security decisions, create an income plan, create a plan for protecting your investments as you approach retirement, and also help you with your investments.

Do you have questions about when to take Social Security and how to maximize your benefit? Take our free online Social Security Masterclass by going to