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Note: with the passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 into law, File & Suspend and Restricted Application have been effectively eliminated for anyone born in 1954 or later. If born before 1954 there are some options still available, but these are limited as well. Please see the article The Death of File & Suspend and Restricted Application for more details.
One of the most confusing concepts in the Social Security retirement system is the Spousal Benefit. This option allows one spouse to file for benefits and the other spouse to receive a benefit based upon the first spouse’s retirement benefit. The greatest amount that the Spousal Benefit could be is 50% of the PIA (Primary Insurance Amount, generally equal to the retirement benefit at Full Retirement Age, or FRA) of the spouse who has filed.
Let’s work through a few examples to explain this. Let’s say we have a couple named Dick and Jane. Dick is 66 years old, and Jane is 62. Dick is eligible for a benefit at his current age of $2,400 per month, and Jane would be eligible for a benefit of $1,000 when she reaches FRA.
If Jane files for her own benefit today, it will be reduced by 25% due to early filing, for a total benefit of $750. If she also files for the Spousal Benefit today (Dick will have to have filed to enable this), then her Spousal benefit would be equal to 50% of Dick’s PIA minus 35% ($2,400 times 32.5% equals $780) minus her own PIA of $1,000. In other words, filing for the Spousal Benefit now would mean that Jane will not receive a Spousal Benefit since the Spousal Benefit at her current age is less than her PIA ($780 vs. $1,000).
Jane could delay until she reaches FRA before filing for Spousal Benefits, which would then give her a Spousal Benefit of 50% of Dick’s PIA ($2,400 times 50% equals $1,200) minus her PIA of $1,000, for a Spousal Benefit differential of $200 ($1,200 minus $1,000). Her total benefit would be the reduced amount of $750 plus the $200 differential.
If Jane delays receiving her own retirement benefit until FRA, she would receive the full $1,000. At this point she could also file for Spousal Benefits, giving her an additional $200 (as calculated above) for a total benefit of $1,200, exactly half of Dick’s PIA.
Keep this factor in mind: Jane can file for her own benefit early and delay the Spousal Benefit until later (as long as she’s not currently eligible for the Spousal Benefit in the month that she files for her own benefit, due to deemed filing); she cannot file for Spousal Benefits early (before FRA) and delay her own benefit.
On the other hand, she could wait until she reaches FRA and then file solely for the Spousal Benefit, delaying her own benefit until age 70 if she wishes.
This is because once Jane reaches FRA she is no longer subject to the deemed filing rule. This means that her Spousal Benefit would be calculated based upon 50% of Dick’s PIA – but Jane’s PIA is not subtracted from it since she has not filed yet.
Mixing this up a bit, if Jane and Dick were the same age, Jane could file for her own benefit at any age, and then at FRA Dick could file for a Spousal Benefit based upon 50% of Jane’s PIA – and just like in Example 4, his Spousal Benefit would not be reduced by his benefit since he has not filed yet.
The following rules apply:
- In order to be eligible for Spousal Benefits, your spouse must have filed for his or her own benefit. He or she could suspend benefits if he or she is at least FRA.
- If applying for your own benefit prior to FRA when you’re also eligible for Spousal Benefits (that is, your spouse has applied for his or her own benefit already), deemed filing requires that you have applied for both the Spousal Benefit and your own benefit at the same time.
- The Spousal Benefit is always a differential between your own PIA and your spouse’s PIA with a factor applied (50% at the greatest, 35% at the least, depending on your age).
- If you have already applied for your own benefits, the Spousal Benefit differential is added to your own benefit to give you your total benefit. If your own benefit is reduced due to having filed early, your total benefit will always be something less than 50% of your spouse’s PIA, even if you wait until your own FRA to file for Spousal Benefits.
- If you have not applied for your own benefits and you’re at least FRA, deemed filing doesn’t apply and you can file solely for your Spousal Benefit, equal to 50% of your spouse’s PIA. This allows you to earn delayed retirement credits on your own record up to age 70.
- Spousal Benefits are only available to one spouse at a time.
- Spousal Benefits are not available if you have filed and suspended your own benefit.
Hopefully this review will help you as you work through the options of the Spousal Benefits for you and your spouse. If not, you can always leave a question in the comments – and I’ll do my best to help you understand the way it works.