Q&A: Social Security spousal benefits

Dear Liz: I started my Social Security benefits at 66 and am now 70. I was married for 23 years and have not remarried.

When I ask about spousal benefits, I am told that my own monthly benefit is too high to get benefits based on my ex’s work record. My monthly benefit is only $1,509, my 401(k) has tanked, and I am surviving on less and less available part-time work.

I was told further that I can apply once my ex passes away and then it won’t matter how high my income is. Could that be correct? What is the exact cut-off amount to get spousal benefits?

Answer: Many people misunderstand the way spousal benefits work, and they think that they can get an additional check on top of their own retirement benefit. That’s not quite how it works.

Essentially, Social Security compares the amount of your retirement benefit with what you would get as a spouse or divorced spouse and gives you the larger of the two. Spousal benefits are up to half of what your spouse or ex receives.

If your ex’s benefit is $2,000 a month, for example, your spousal benefit could be $1,000, which is less than you’re getting now. If your ex dies, however, you can apply for a survivor benefit that equals what he or she received — in this example, $2,000 a month.

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  1. Please clarify this situation. From the SSA, “if you have reached full retirement age and you are eligible for a spouse’s benefit and your own retirement benefit, you have a choice.

    You can choose to receive only the divorced spouse’s benefits now and delay receiving retirement benefits until a later date. If retirement benefits are delayed, a higher benefit may be received at a later date based on the effect of Delayed Retirement Credits.”

    At least two of your answers seems to contradict this. I am 63 and divorced, was married more than 10 years, and now unmarried. My benefit is greater than my ex’s benefit. Based on the SSA article at http://www.ssa.gov/planners/retire/divspouse.html and quoted above, I plan to collect on my ex’s at my FRA of 66, then switch to my benefit at 70.
    I believe this is in accordance with the SSA. What do you think?
    Thanks for your assistance.

    • Liz Weston says

      I think you may be misunderstanding my responses if you think they contradict Social Security’s policy. If you wait until full retirement age and if you file a restricted application for spousal benefits only, you can receive spousal benefits (or divorced spousal benefits) and switch to your own benefit later. If you file prior to full retirement age or if you fail to file a restricted application, your retirement benefit will be compared to your spousal benefit and you’ll essentially get the larger of the two.

  2. Orrin turbow says

    I read your answer to say if I start my S S benefits at age 70 then my wife will get approximately 1/2 of that amount if she waits until age 67 to start her spousal benifits. SS told me even if I wait until age 70 to start my SS my wife will only get 1/2 of what my SS payment would have been when I was 67. Which is correct?

    • Liz Weston says

      What I’ve learned about Social Security is that you can’t take the answer for one set of facts and circumstances and apply it to another. This makes it frustrating, I know, but Social Security is a complicated beast. The delayed retirement credits you get for postponing benefits past your own full retirement age do not translate into a higher spousal benefit. They would, however, translate into a higher survivor’s benefit for your wife if you died. She would get 100 percent of what you earned, including those delayed credits.

      • Orrin turbow says

        Thanks so much!

        If my wife takes her spousal benefits at 64 can she at age 67 repay the money she received in order to get a higher survivors benefit?

        Though when she is 67 I won’t be 70 for another 6 months? Any advice regarding that (assuming your answer is that at age 67 she can repay what she has been paid since 65)?


        • Liz Weston says

          No, that particular loophole has been closed. People now have only one opportunity to hit the reset button (paying back all their benefits in order to restart at a higher rate) and that can only be done in the 12 months after starting benefits.