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Social Security provides a retirement income for seniors who have stopped working or reached a certain age. However, did you know that benefits are also available to dependents of those retirees? While Social Security spousal benefits can be a bit complicated, they can provide a welcome safety net to spouses, both while their partners are alive and after they pass away.

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Who's Eligible for Social Security Spousal Benefits?

You're eligible for Social Security spousal benefits if you're at least 62, or if, at any age, you're the primary caregiver of a child who's disabled or 16 or younger. In addition, you must meet another condition:

  • You're currently married to someone who's already receiving Social Security benefits, OR
  • You were once married for at least ten years to someone who is at least 62 and is eligible to receive Social Security benefits, and you didn't remarry until you were at least 60.

Notice that in the case of ex-spouses, your ex doesn't have to have filed for their benefits for you to receive your spousal benefits.

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Can You Collect Social Security Spousal Benefits If Your Spouse Dies?

Yes. If you are widowed, you can collect survivor's benefits starting at age 60. If you and your spouse are both receiving Social Security benefits when your spouse dies, you can choose either your own benefits or your spouse's, whichever is higher. When your spouse dies, if you haven't started receiving Social Security benefits, you can receive survivor's benefits and hold off filing for your own benefits until age 70. In some cases, doing this results in larger benefits. In addition, you receive a one-time payment of $255 when a spouse dies.

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How Much Are You Entitled to Receive?

Both you and your spouse are entitled to Social Security benefits based on your earnings before retirement. Social Security benefits are typically calculated as of your full retirement age, which may vary depending on the year you were born. Filing for Social Security benefits before your full retirement age will result in a reduction of your benefits. You can either take your Social Security benefits or your spousal benefits, which are 50 percent of your spouse's Social Security benefits as of full retirement age. The Social Security Administration will calculate the amounts for you and pay you the higher amount.

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What Happens if Spousal Benefits Are Wildly Different From Each Other?

In general, the Social Security Administration pays each spouse the benefits they've earned separately. However, sometimes one spouse has earned far more than the other. If one spouse has a benefit that's less than half of the other spouse's benefit, the lesser-earning spouse gets an additional spousal benefit. That extra benefit makes sure that the lesser-earning spouse gets 50 percent of the other's spouse's benefits. For example: Say one spouse receives Social Security benefits of $1,000, and the other spouse receives $300. That $300 is less than $500, which is half the benefit amount received by the first spouse. Because of this, the lesser-earning spouse is eligible to receive a spousal benefit of $200 in addition to their own benefits.

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What Happens If You Take Social Security Spousal Benefits Early?

If your spouse files for Social Security benefits before reaching full retirement age, your spousal benefits are reduced. Expect a reduction of 25/36 of 1% (8.33% per year) for every month before full retirement age, up to 36 months. You'll be docked an additional 5/12 of 1% (5% per year) for every month beyond the 36 months. This reduction is permanent. If you earn more income after taking early benefits, you may even have to pay some back. (This doesn't happen if you go back to work after reaching your full retirement age.) If your spouse takes Social Security early, you don't have to take your spousal benefits early. Taking early benefits also affects any survivor benefits you or your spouse will receive if either of you dies.

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What Happens If You Take Social Security Spousal Benefits Late?

Nothing happens if you delay your Social Security spousal benefits after reaching full retirement age. Yes, your own actual Social Security benefits can continue to accrue until you reach age 70. However, the same isn't true for spousal benefits. As soon as you reach full retirement age, your spousal benefits have capped.

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How Do You Apply for Social Security Spousal Benefits?

Applying for Social Security spousal benefits is actually quite simple. You use the same form for spousal benefits as you would use for regular Social Security benefits. Find the form on the Social Security website. You can also call the Social Security Administration for help filling out the form, or you can visit your local Social Security Administration office and fill it out in person. The whole application only takes about 15 minutes to fill out, start to finish.

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