How to Collect Half of Your Spouse’s Social Security

By Justin Pritchard, CFP®

Social Security spousal benefits allow you to get up to half of a higher-earning spouse’s benefit. But what does that mean exactly, and why do so many people get caught by surprise when they receive less than they expected?

For example, you often hear people refer to switching to a spousal benefit. But that rarely works the way you think. That can be a problem, so we want to avoid any confusion.

Social Security is complicated enough as it is. But when you add in spousal retirement benefits, things get even more tricky. Fortunately, we can condense things to two or three basic rules to help most married couples maximize their income.

This doesn’t apply to everybody in every case, but a spouse with lower earnings or no Social Security benefit can get up to half of their spouse’s full retirement age (FRA) benefit when:

  1. The higher earning spouse is taking benefits.
  2. The lower earning spouse begins taking all benefits (including the spousal benefit) at their full retirement age or later.
  3. There are no additional factors like government pensions, divorce, a qualifying child at home, working while claiming early, death, etc. to complicate things.

There’s a lot to unpack there, and the details are below. We’ll go through several examples to paint the picture. With that information, you’ll know how many (but hot all) couples can simplify things and make an informed decision. But this doesn’t cover every single detail, so you’ll need to triple-check with SSA and other resources before making any decisions.

Continue reading below, or get similar information from this video.

Social Security Spousal Benefits

This piece of benefits is extremely important, as roughly 1.9 million households get a spousal benefit. But it only applies in specific cases, and it’s potentially the most misunderstood aspect of retirement benefits.

The spousal benefit entitles one spouse to up to 50% of their spouse’s FRA amount. For example, if the higher-earner’s benefit is $2,000 per month, the lower earner can get up to $1,000 per month.

Unfortunately, most people assume that the spousal benefit will always be half. That’s not always true. In many cases, that spouse will get less than half, which can be an unwelcome surprise.

How Are Spousal Benefits Calculated?

There may be two parts to a spousal benefit:

  • The spouse’s base benefit, if any
  • A spousal “top-off”

Those two pieces apply when the lower-earning spouse has a work record and a Social Security benefit that’s less than half of the higher-earner’s benefit.

If the spouse never contributed to the Social Security system through payroll taxes, you can effectively ignore the first part, and everything is a spousal benefit.

To calculate the pieces of a spousal benefit, assuming both spouses are at FRA or above:

  1. Start with the higher-earning spouse’s primary insurance amount (PIA). This is the same as their benefit at FRA.
  2. Divide that number by 2.
  3. Subtract the lower-earning spouse’s PIA, which could be zero, and the result is the spousal top-off.
  4. Add the lower earner’s PIA for the full monthly benefit.

It’s critical to use the benefit amount at FRA or the PIA. You do not use a benefit amount that’s reduced for early claiming. Likewise, you wouldn’t use a higher benefit that comes from delayed claiming.

Example: Worker Wanda has a benefit at FRA of $3,000 per month. Her spouse, Spouse Slim, earned less during his working years, and his benefit is $800 per month at FRA. They are the same age, and they have reached FRA. How are spousal benefits calculated for this couple?

Slim can potentially get up to $1,500 per month, but only if they observe the two essential rules above.

Remember: When can you collect half of the other spouse’s Social Security? When the higher-earning spouse is on benefits and the lower earner becomes eligible at FRA or later.

Following the process outlined for calculating:

  1. Wanda’s PIA is $3,000.
  2. Divide that in half: $3,000 divided by 2 equals $1,500.
  3. Subtract Slim’s PIA: $1,500 minus $800 is $700 (the spousal top-off).
  4. Add back Slim’s PIA for his maximum benefit: $700 plus $800 equals $1,500.

If Slim’s benefit was zero (because he never worked outside the home, for example), you could still get to $1,500 with that process.

That’s simple enough, but in reality, couples often claim at different ages.

When Does a Spouse Get Half?

If a lower-earning spouse starts benefits early, they will never get 50% of the higher-earning spouse’s PIA (while both spouses are alive).

This is critical, and people often refuse to believe it.

If the higher earner predeceases the lower earner, then the lower earner can take over the biggest payment as a survivor benefit.

Back to our two basic rules from the beginning of this article. You can collect half of your spouse’s Social Security when:

  1. The higher earner is taking benefits, and
  2. The lower earner waits until FRA to become eligible for spousal benefits

#1 Higher Earner Is Taking Benefits

The higher-earner effectively “unlocks” spousal benefits when they begin benefits. In other words, there is no spousal benefit for most couples unless both spouses claim benefits.

Example (more): Assume Slim takes his retirement benefit at age 63, but Wanda doesn’t claim until 67. They are both the same age, so there’s a gap between filing dates. During that time, Slim can get his own benefit (reduced due to early claiming), but there will be no spousal top-off until Wanda takes benefits.

Example of a spousal benefit beginning after the higher earner claims

Caption: There is no spousal benefit until 2036, when the higher-earner (you) begins benefits. The total “spousal” benefit is less than half of $36,000.

Note: $7,200 + $8,400 = $15,600, which is $2,400 less than $18,000. It’s best to look at years 2037 and beyond, as they show the entire year’s benefits.

Potential problems:

  • Because Slim has a reduced base benefit, he will never get up to 50% of Wanda’s FRA amount. The spousal top-off—even if it’s the full $700—would go on top of Slim’s own reduced benefit.
  • If Slim never paid into Social Security and he doesn’t have a benefit of his own, he won’t get anything until Wanda claims.

Again, this doesn’t apply to every situation. For example, a divorced spouse can potentially get a spousal benefit before their ex-spouse claims. This prevents people from intentionally delaying claiming out of spite and preventing their ex from getting benefits.

For Slim to get half of Wanda’s FRA amount, he’d need to wait until 67 to claim.

#2 Lower Earner Is FRA or Older

To maximize the spousal top-off, the lower-earning (or non-working) spouse generally must become eligible for that piece after reaching their FRA. Remember that they only become eligible after the highest-earning spouse unlocks benefits.

Again, it’s possible for a spouse to take their own benefit or get a spousal benefit before FRA. But the total amount will be less than half of the higher-earner’s benefit amount.

Example (more): Slim and Wanda are considering claiming at 66 or 67. They want to maximize the monthly income from Social Security in future years because they expect longevity. They’re willing to wait, if needed. When does the spouse get half of the higher earner’s benefit? Slim will need to wait until 67 to claim any and all benefits.

Why? A lower-earning spouse must begin benefits at their FRA or later to get half of a spouse’s Social Security benefit.

Example of spousal benefit being half of higher earners due to claiming ages

Interestingly, you can have cases where the spousal benefit is more than half of the higher-earner’s benefit. That’s possible when the higher-earner claims early and the lower-earner waits until their own FRA to claim. However, the spousal benefit will not exceed 50% of what the higher earner could have gotten at FRA.

Keep in mind that delayed retirement credits don’t apply to the spousal top-off, so delaying beyond FRA would only benefit the lower earner in the form of a bigger base benefit. The spousal top-off would stay the same. Delayed credits can be helpful at death, though.

Split Claiming Strategies

It’s probably more likely that a couple would use a different strategy. For example, one popular approach is a split claiming strategy for couples where the higher earner delays until age 70 and the lower earner claims at 62.

That approach accomplishes several things. When couples are the same age (or fairly close), it’s relatively easy to ensure that the lower earner gets a full spousal top-off. However, that benefit goes on top of a reduced benefit—so the total “spousal” benefit is still less than 50%.

To increase benefits, you might have the lower earner wait until their FRA or later to claim, and the higher earner can still wait until age 70 to maximize benefits. With that approach, you maximize longevity protection (a surviving spouse keeps whichever benefit is biggest), and each spouse gets a healthy income in case they both live long lives.

Plus, delaying benefits can help with tax planning. For example, if you have large balances in pre-tax retirement accounts, you might want to spend down some of those assets or convert to Roth. By keeping your income low (with no Social Security income), those strategies are easiest.

Of course, the tradeoff is that you’ll go without Social Security income for the early years of retirement.

You can choose whatever combination of claiming ages you want—early, late, or otherwise. The most important thing is to understand how benefits work and how spousal benefits are calculated. You might not need the spousal benefit to equal half, but you’ll only know what’s best after doing an analysis.