There’s a lot of misinformation available out there – particularly when you’re getting your information from friends and the internet. One of the places where I see the most mis-information is about social security benefits for military spouses. Which is sort of weird, because there are no special rules for military spouses, the rules are the same for all spouses. And it may be one of the largest streams of income in retirement. Yet, it is mis-represented, mis-explained, and told plain wrong every single day.
So, here are the facts, with links to back them up.
Note here: While I know a decent amount about Social Security myself, I learned a lot of the nuances and little details from my friend Devin Carroll at the Social Security Intelligence website. In particular, this article and this video are great at explaining spousal Social Security benefits.
Spouses are Eligible for Social Security Benefits
One of the biggest benefits of the entire Social Security program is the spousal benefit.
If you are married, you are eligible for a Social Security retirement-age benefit based upon your spouse’s work history. While the basic rule states that you must be married for one year, there are exceptions.
If you are not currently married, you may be eligible for a Social Security retirement-age benefit based upon your former spouse’s work history, as long as your marriage lasted at least 10 years.
If you are eligible for your own Social Security retirement-age benefit, but your spousal benefit would be larger, you can use your spousal benefit to “top-up” your own benefit so that you receive the full amount of Social Security benefits available.
How To Figure Your Spousal Benefit Amount
Honestly, there are a lot of calculations here based upon the age at which you file for Social Security and also possibly the age at which your spouse/ex-spouse files for benefits. This means that everyone’s final benefit may be different, based upon the filing choices that you make. But there are some general rules that can help you start understanding the spousal benefit.
The First Step
Start with this basic rule, then we’ll work on the exceptions and adjustments:
The spousal benefit, if taken at full retirement age, will be one-half of the working spouse’s full retirement age benefit.
Note for those of you who haven’t been following the changes to the full retirement age: As of right now, if you were born in 1960 or later, your full retirement age (FRA) is age 67. Here’s the chart at the Social Security Administration website.
The Second Step
Just like regular retirement-age Social Security benefits, if you begin receiving your spousal benefits earlier than your full-retirement age, you will receive a smaller amount. The earliest you can file is age 62, with incrementally higher benefit amounts until you reach the full retirement age benefit.
Hopefully, you’re still with me: 1. Your full retirement-age spousal benefit (or total benefit if you receive your own benefit and a spousal top-up is one-half of your spouse’s full retirement age benefit, and 2. Your benefit will be reduced if you file before your full retirement age. Of course, though, there’s more.
The Third Step
BUT if you are married, you can not begin receiving your spousal benefit or spousal top-up until your husband or wife files for benefits. If your husband or wife has not yet filed for benefits, then you are only eligible for your own benefit and those spousal benefits will have to wait until your husband or wife file for benefits.
Just to complicate things a little more, the rules are different if you are divorced and filing on your former spouse’s work record. If you are divorced, your former spouse does not have to file for benefits in order for you to file for benefits on their record. You may file at any time you are eligible as long as you have been divorced at least two years.
This is just brief and simple overview of the system. Like I said above, visit SocialSecurityIntelligence.com for more detailed explanations and analysis. I recommend this article and this video for the best explanations of spousal Social Security benefits.
Next, let’s discuss some of the specific areas where I hear a lot of wrong information:
Mis-Truth: You can only file for a spousal benefit after your husband or wife dies.
Truth: As we’ve discussed above, you can file for a spousal benefit as soon as you reach the age to be eligible for Social Security Benefits. However, there can be significant financial benefits to waiting to your full retirement age. If you are currently married, you may not receive a spousal benefit or spousal top-up until your husband or wife files for benefits. This rule does not apply if you are divorced.
Mis-Truth: Only the first spouse/last spouse/spouse who was married the longest is eligible for spousal benefits.
Truth: All spouses who meet the eligibility requirements are eligible for spousal benefits. A single person could accumulate a string of 10 year spouses, and they would all be eligible for the spousal benefit.
Mis-Truth: Your Social Security benefit is reduced by any military benefits you receive.
Truth: There are no reductions to either Social Security or military retirement/survivor benefits. It is true that this happened in the past, but it was eliminated many years ago.
Please, if you have questions or comments or concerns, let me know in the comments. I’ll find answers and share them with everyone!
Do you want to know more about your military pay and benefits?
Things change fast around here! Keep up-to-date with email alerts about the topics that are important to you!