How to navigate spouse benefits under the new social security rules

The 2015 bipartisan budget bill changed the rules for applying for spouse benefits based on social security and eliminated some popular claim strategies that once allowed couples to increase their benefits. However, the new law does not completely abolish spouse benefits. If you meet the conditions, you can still apply for benefits based on your spouse’s income history, even if you have never paid social security yourself.

Key points

  • In 2015, the federal government changed the rules for applying for Social Security spouse benefits.
  • The new rules put an end to several popular strategies that couples used to increase their total income, such as “archive and pause.”
  • Many spouses (in some cases, divorced spouses) still receive spousal benefits, even if they have never paid the social security system themselves.

Apply for spouse benefits under the new regulations

People who were born before January 2, 1954 and have reached full or “normal” retirement age are still protected by one of the previous rules. This means that they can submit a “restricted application” to obtain a spouse benefit equal to half of the spouse’s benefit, and then switch to a benefit based on their work experience. By waiting to receive their own benefits (until the age of 70), they will receive delayed retirement points, which will result in greater monthly benefits when they finally apply.

However, for anyone born on or after January 2, 1954, the ability to use restricted applications to apply for spouse benefits has been cancelled. Spouses can still apply for spouse benefits, but when they do, they will be deemed to have applied for all available benefits, including their own benefits. Then they will receive higher benefits, but will not be able to switch from spouse benefits to their own benefits in the future.

Eligibility for spouse benefits

If your spouse has applied for social security benefits and you are at least 62 years of age or you are caring for a child who is entitled to receive benefits in your spouse’s records and is under 16 or has a disability, then you are eligible for Spouse benefits.

Unless you are entitled to receive benefits based on eligible children, if you start receiving benefits before reaching full retirement age, your benefits will be reduced. For example, for people born in 1960 or later, the full retirement age is 67.

If you start receiving spouse benefits from the age of 62, you will receive 32.5% to 37% of all spouse benefits. If you wait until full retirement age to receive, you will receive up to 50% of your spouse’s total benefits.Unlike regular retirement benefits, there is no incentive to delay receiving spouse benefits after the full retirement age.

Please also note that if you start receiving spouse benefits and are working before the full retirement age, you may need to undergo a social security income test, which may result in a reduction in benefits, at least temporarily.

Spousal benefits for divorced spouses

In some cases, the former spouse can receive spouse benefits based on the former spouse’s income history.

In order to qualify, they must:

  • 62 years of age or older.
  • Have been married to your spouse for at least 10 years.
  • Currently unmarried.

Unlike currently married spouses, divorced spouses can apply for benefits even if their former spouse has not started receiving their own benefits (although the former spouse must be eligible to receive it). However, they need to divorce for at least two consecutive years at the time of application.

As with the spouse benefits of the current spouse, the divorced spouse applying for spouse benefits may need to undergo the social security income test if they have not yet reached the full retirement age and are working.

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