Social Security and Spouses

A deeper look at spousal benefits.

A few weeks ago, I posted a Social Security quiz. After that column was published I heard from several very experienced Social Security employees who let me know that my example regarding spousal benefits was misleading. That’s one of the things I love about writing this column -- knowing that the real experts in the trenches are paying close attention. I appreciate the correction and decided to devote this week’s column to Social Security benefits for spouses.

If you are married, widowed or divorced, one of the following examples may apply to you.

John and Martha

The Situation: A Civil Service Retirement System employee is married to a worker covered by Social Security. The spouse either retired from military service, worked under the Federal Employees Retirement System or had a job in private industry.

The Players: John, a CSRS employee, age 66, is planning to continue working for a few more years before collecting his CSRS retirement. Martha, who is retired from a career in the banking industry, is now receiving a Social Security benefit of $1,600 per month at 66.  (That’s her full Social Security retirement age. Click here  to find yours.)

John has very little Social Security-covered employment since he spent most of his career exempt from paying the Social Security tax as a CSRS employee. So for this example, his entitlement to Social Security benefits is based on his wife’s work record, rather than his own. Since John is now at the full retirement age for Social Security, he is entitled to receive benefits without applying an earnings limit. When his wife applied for her Social Security benefit, John discovered he is entitled to 50 percent of her benefit and can begin receiving $800 per month. Once he retires from federal service and begins receiving his CSRS retirement benefit, he must notify Social Security. He then will be subject to the Government Pension Offset, which will reduce his Social Security spousal benefit by two-thirds of his CSRS retirement. At that time, his entitlement to his wife’s Social Security benefit will be eliminated.

If John was entitled to his own Social Security benefit, then he would receive his own or 50 percent of his wife’s benefit, whichever is higher. When John begins receiving his CSRS retirement, his Social Security benefit (had he been entitled to a benefit on his own work record) would be recomputed under the modified Windfall Elimination Provision formula. It is important for CSRS employees who are over the full Social Security retirement age and are receiving Social Security benefits to notify the Social Security Administration when they retire under CSRS, since their Social Security benefit must be recomputed based on the WEP and the GPO.

Sara and George

The Situation: A Social Security-covered employee is married to another Social Security-covered employee. This could be a couple who are federal employees covered by FERS or any other job covered by Social Security.

The Players: Sara is now 66, but began receiving her Social Security retirement benefit at 62 in 2008. She receives $520 a month, which is less than her full benefit amount of $690, since she chose to receive her benefit before reaching her full retirement age. George recently turned 66 (his full retirement age for Social Security) and filed for his Social Security benefit to begin. His benefit amount is $2,340.

Now that her husband has filed for his benefit, Sara can receive a higher spousal benefit based on her husband’s work record. Her new benefit would be computed as follows:

  • Spousal entitlement: 50 percent of $2,340 = $1,170
  • Subtract her full benefit: $1,170 - $690 = $480
  • Add her reduced benefit based on her earnings: $480 + $520 = $1,000

If Sara would have waited until she was 66 to apply for benefits, she would have received the higher of her own benefit ($690) or 50 percent of George’s benefit ($1,170). Since she applied for her own benefit at 62, she is receiving slightly less than 50 percent of George’s benefit, but she has received her own benefit for the past 48 months. So she’s still ahead of the game.

If George would have filed for his benefit before Sara reached her full retirement age, then her spousal benefit would have been reduced by the number of months that she was below the full retirement age. For example, if Sara was 65, the amount would have been 46 percent of George’s full benefit amount. At 64, it would have been 42 percent; at 63, 37.5 percent. The Social Security program will always pay you benefits based on your record first. If your benefit as a spouse is higher than your retirement benefit, you will receive a combination of benefits equaling the higher spouse’s benefit.

Widows and Former Spouses

Widows or widowers of Social Security-covered workers can receive 100 percent of the deceased worker’s benefit amount if they apply at the full retirement age or older. Widows or widowers from 60 up to their full retirement age can receive between 71.5 percent and 99 percent of the deceased worker’s benefit. If the person who died was receiving a reduced benefit, then the survivor’s benefit will be based on that amount. Here is a Social Security survivors’ planning guide.

A note for former spouses of Social Security-covered workers: If your marriage lasted 10 years or longer and you are currently unmarried and 62 or older, you may be entitled to retirement benefits on the work record of your former spouse --  if the benefit is more than the benefit you would receive on your own work record. If you remarry, you generally cannot collect benefits on your former spouse’s record unless that marriage later ends. You can receive benefits even if your ex-spouse has not applied for benefits (if he or she is qualified), as long as you’ve been divorced for at least two years. Here’s more information.

For former spouses of deceased Social Security-covered workers: If your marriage lasted 10 years or more, you are entitled to the same benefits as a widow or widower. If you remarry after you reach age 60 (or 50, if disabled), the remarriage will not affect your eligibility for survivors benefits.

Here’s more information for surviving divorced spouses.

Schedule an Appointment

When it’s  is time for you to file for Social Security retirement benefits on your own or your spouse’s work record, you can request an appointment to speak with someone at your local Social Security office to help you determine how much you’re entitled to receive. Here are the details.

Upcoming Webinar

I’ll be doing a webinar in connection with the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program, highlighting my top five tips to consider before planning your retirement. It’s on Feb. 23 at 2 p.m. Eastern time.

Click here for more information and to register