5 Things to Know About Social Security Spousal Benefits

You're probably aware that if you work and therefore pay into Social Security, you're entitled to benefits in retirement. But what if you never worked? What if you were the one in your family who stayed home to raise kids or maintain the household?

The good news is that even if you never earned a paycheck in your life, you may still be entitled to Social Security income in the form of spousal benefits. Here are a few things you should know about how these benefits work.

1. You can receive up to half of your spouse's benefit

If you never worked but are married to someone who's entitled to Social Security benefits, you can claim benefits based on his or her work record. Specifically, you're entitled to up to 50% of your spouse's benefit at full retirement age -- but you'll only get that much if you wait until your full retirement age to file. As is the case with regular Social Security benefits, you can file as early as age 62, but in doing so, you'll reduce your spousal benefits on a lifelong basis.

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2. You can claim spousal benefits even if you worked yourself

Spousal benefits aren't just reserved for people who never earned money. If you're entitled to benefits based on your own work record, but your full benefit amounts to less than 50% of your spouse's benefit at full retirement age, then you can claim a spousal benefit and snag a higher monthly payout.

Imagine you're entitled to a monthly benefit of $1,000 based on your earnings history. If your spouse is entitled to $2,400 a month at full retirement age, you can claim a spousal benefit of $1,200 and come out ahead.

3. You can't claim spousal benefits until your spouse starts collecting Social Security

Though you're entitled to up to half of your spouse's benefit at full retirement age, you can't beat him or her to the punch. You'll need to wait for your spouse to file for Social Security before you get any money based on his or her work record. However, if you're entitled to a benefit of your own that's less than half of your spouse's benefit, and your spouse hasn't yet filed, you can claim your benefit and then get bumped up to that higher amount once your spouse signs up for Social Security.

4. You can't grow a spousal benefit

When you're claiming Social Security based on your own work record, there's the option to hold off on taking benefits past full retirement age to accrue delayed retirement credits. These credits can boost your benefits by 8% a year up until age 70. However, these credits don't apply to spousal benefits, so delaying yours past full retirement age won't put any more money in your pocket.

5. You can claim spousal benefits even if you're no longer married

You don't need to be married to claim spousal benefits. As long as you were married for at least 10 years and are not remarried, you can claim those benefits -- even if your former spouse has since gotten married to somebody else. Furthermore, if you've been divorced for at least two years, you can claim spousal benefits even if your ex-spouse hasn't yet claimed his or her own benefits. But you must be at least 62 to file.

Spousal benefits can be a huge financial help in retirement if you never worked, or if you did work but weren't a very high earner. It pays to read up on how spousal benefits work so that you can make the most of them when you're ready to file.

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