Social Security benefits are available to spouses who wouldn’t otherwise be eligible for benefits based on a lack of work history. Even for spouses who do have an earnings record, the spousal benefit may be greater than what they qualify for on their own.

Find out if this applies to you or your spouse, and how you can claim spousal benefits.

First things first: Are you eligible to receive spousal benefits?

The three questions to ask yourself to confirm your eligibility are:

1) Have you been married for at least one year?

The answer must be yes to qualify.

2) Do you have your own earnings record, or work history?

Even if you do, you may still qualify for spousal benefits. Learn more about this below.

3) Has your spouse already started receiving Social Security payments?

Because you’ll be signing up for spousal benefits under your spouse’s account, he or she must have already started receiving benefits in order for you to be eligible.

How do spousal benefits work if you do have work history?

If there’s something good about all those Social Security withholdings over the years, it’s that the government’s policy is to pay the highest eligible amount to benefits recipients. This is the case whether you have your own work history and are eligible, and is also the case if your spouse earned much more than you during your working years, so your spousal benefits would be greater than your own.

Another good thing to know: Social Security payments are calculated using the 35 years in which you (or your spouse) earned the most.

Here’s how it works:

  • First, you can apply to receive benefits under your spouse’s account. (Remember, you must have been married for at least one year and your spouse must have already claimed benefits.)
  • If due to your earnings record, you are eligible for your own benefits and that amount is higher than what you might be paid under spousal benefits, you will automatically receive that higher benefit amount.
  • If instead your spousal benefits are higher, then you’ll receive a combined benefit equal to the greater amount.

When should you claim Social Security retirement benefits as a spouse?

How you time the claiming of your benefits matters when it comes to how much you’ll receive, and is worth serious consideration as part of your financial planning. Depending on your age when you begin claiming, your spousal benefits will range from 32.5% to 50% of your husband’s or wife’s benefit amount.

While you could opt to start receiving your benefits as early as age 62, waiting could prove to be a better strategy. That’s because each year you delay retirement benefits is worth an additional 8% in benefits if you were born between 1943 and 1954. Monthly payments are reduced by 25% to 30% if you start claiming at 62.

Social Security considers the full retirement age to be between 66 and 67, depending on your birth year, and payments increase for each month you delay starting payments up until age 70. Waiting to claim your benefit at full retirement age means you’ll receive the maximum benefit, which will total 50% of your spouse’s benefit.

Divorced or widowed? You may still be entitled to benefits.

If you have been divorced for at least two years, and the marriage lasted more than 10 years, you can apply for divorced spouse benefits. However, if you remarry, you cannot claim divorced spouse benefits. If you were receiving payments before you remarried, those payments will be terminated.

For those who are widowed, the Social Security survivor benefit (which equals the full benefit your spouse was receiving) allows the surviving spouse to relinquish their own benefit and receive the benefits of the deceased spouse.

Even if you were divorced when your ex-spouse passed away, if you’re older than 60, you can claim survivor benefits. (There are some caveats to whether or not you’re entitled to receive benefits as a widow or widower, or divorced widow or widower, in the event you do get remarried.)

How to apply for spousal benefits

You can apply via the Social Security Administration (SSA) website, or by calling the number listed on the site.

Curious if you’re taking advantage of the best Social Security and other retirement benefits strategies? Contact us to learn more about Ironwood Wealth Management’s approach, and how we can help you maximize your wealth.