When does a Claimant’s Social Security Benefits Apply to the Spouse

by | Published on Oct 5, 2016 | Social Security Disability

Social Security is the largest social welfare program in the United States and its disability benefits are a great support to disabled individuals and their families. A complex program, disability benefits are granted only on the basis of a comprehensive review of relevant medical records. Many applicants obtain support from attorneys to ensure a successful claim process, and this in turn increases the requirement of medical record review for attorneys, an important first step when evaluating a social security disability application.

A Social Security disability beneficiary’s family members may also qualify for benefits on his/her record. Only certain family members qualify such as:

  • Spouse
  • Divorced spouse
  • Children
  • Disabled child and/or adult child disabled before age 22

The focus of this blog is on spouse’s retirement benefits. A spouse who is 62 years old or older is eligible for Social Security benefits, if he or she has been married for at least a year to the claimant who receives Social Security benefits. Spousal benefits are limited to 50% of the claimant’s PIA or Primary Insurance Amount. The PIA is the benefit a person would receive if he/she chooses to begin receiving retirement benefits at his/her normal retirement age. For a person receiving disability benefits of $2, 200, the spousal benefits would be half of that amount. The disability benefit would convert to a retirement benefit when the claimant reaches full retirement age (FRA). The full retirement age refers to the age one must reach to be eligible to receive full benefits from Social Security. This age varies on the basis of when a person was born. The SSA has been gradually increasing this age in keeping with lengthening life expectancies. The FRA is 65 for those born before 1938, whereas those born between 1938 and 1960 are on a graduated scale up to age 67. The SSA might continue to raise the FRA.

If the disability claimant dies, survivor benefits would replace spousal benefits at the time of death. The maximum survivor benefit is paid when a claimant postpones claiming to age 70 and accrues maximum delayed retirement credits. The modifications made to Social Security laws in 2015 allows claimants to suspend benefits and accrue delayed retirement credits at the cost of the spouse losing spousal benefits until the point in time the claimant restarts benefits.

How can a surviving spouse claim maximum survivor benefits? Both the husband and wife will have to forego any Social Security benefit from the time the claimant reaches FRA and age 70, if he/she waits that long. If the claimant continues with his/her current benefits at FRA, the spouse will be eligible for a survivor benefit (which is the same disability benefit amount) at the time of the claimant’s death assuming that the spouse would have reached his/her own full retirement age.

Here are some more intricate details regarding spouse and survivor benefits.

  • The earliest a widow/widower can claim Social Security survivor’s benefits on the basis of age is age 60.
  • If a spouse claims spousal benefit at age 62 (whether against a retirement benefit or disability benefit), he/she will be subject to a reduction in spousal benefits. Spousal benefits are calculated differently from retirement benefits. If the spouse claims spousal benefit at age 62, it would be subject to a 30%reduction of the benefits payable at his/her full retirement age. That is, a spouse eligible for a $1,100 benefit at retirement age would receive $770 per month at age 62.
  • If the spouse claims spousal benefits at age 62 and the claimant dies one year later, the spouse would be eligible for survivor benefits instead of spousal benefits. As a survivor, the spouse would have a unique widow’s/widower’s full retirement age, which may be different from his/her regular retirement age. For example, survivors born in 1962 and after will have a full retirement age of 67. This is important because survivor’s benefits are also subject to reductions before the survivor’s full retirement age. These benefits reduce by 4.75% each year from the survivor’s full retirement age.

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