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Does my spouse’s earnings history affect my Social Security retirement benefit?

Your retirement benefit? No. Each spouse can claim their own retirement benefit based solely on their individual earnings history. You can both collect your full amounts at the same time.

However, your spouse’s earnings could affect the overall amount you get from Social Security if you receive spousal benefits. These are Social Security payments you can collect on the basis of your husband’s or wife’s earnings record.

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The maximum spousal benefit is 50 percent of your mate’s primary insurance amount, the retirement benefit to which he or she is entitled at full retirement age, based on his or her earnings history. (To get 50 percent, the person claiming spousal benefits must have reached full retirement age, which is 66 and 6 months for someone born in 1957 and gradually rising to 67 over the next few years.)

Under Social Security’s “deemed filing” rule, people who are married are required to file for a spousal benefit at the same time as they file for their retirement benefit — when you claim one, you are deemed to be claiming the other. Social Security will pay you the bigger of the two amounts (never both combined). If the spousal benefit is larger than your retirement benefit, by virtue of your spouse earning considerably more than you during your working lives, you will receive the amount of the spousal benefit.

Say you and your mate both claimed Social Security at full retirement age. Based on your respective earnings records, your retirement benefit is $1,200 a month and your spouse’s is $2,000. Your spousal benefit would be $1,000 — half of your spouse’s benefit — so Social Security will, in effect, ignore it and pay your higher retirement benefit of $1,200.

But suppose your retirement benefit is only $900 a month. In this case, you’ll get $1,000 from Social Security, the equivalent of the spousal benefit. Technically, Social Security considers itself to be paying the $900 retirement benefit on your work record and topping it up with $100 on your spouse’s record — but practically speaking, you’re getting the spousal benefit.

Keep in mind

  • Deemed filing covers only the combination of retirement and spousal benefits. It does not apply to the survivor benefits widows and widowers can receive, nor to disability benefits.
  • Spousal benefits are not affected by whether your mate claimed Social Security before or after full retirement age. Spousal benefits will always be based on your mate’s primary insurance amount and your own age when you claim them.
  • Spousal benefits are affected by Social Security's earnings limit. If you, or the spouse on whose record you receive benefits, are under full retirement age and still working, your monthly payments could be temporarily reduced, depending on how much you or your mate earn.

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