Today’s column addresses questions about whether spousal benefits can still be available, how survivor benefits are calculated when there are multiple spouses, eligibility for spousal benefits and how SSA views partnerships when determining spousal benefit eligibility. Larry Kotlikoff is a Professor of Economics at Boston University and the founder and president of Economic Security Planning, Inc, which markets Maximize My Social Security and MaxiFi Planner.

See more Ask Larry answers here.

Have Social Security questions of your own you’d like answered? Ask Larry about Social Security here.


Were Social Security Spousal Benefits Really Eliminated In 2016?

Hi Larry, When I went to the SSA office to apply for spousal benefits, I was told they were eliminated in 2016 so I applied for my retirement benefits on my own record when I turned 66. Did the spousal benefit get eliminated or was I given bad info? My husband started benefits at his full retirement age of 66. I tried to get spousal benefit when I was 64 but they said he had to file for his retirement benefit first. Thanks, Mary

Hi Mary, Spousal benefits haven’t been eliminated. What changed in 2016 is that people born after 1/1/1954 can no longer file for spousal benefits without also being required to file for their own retirement benefits at the same time. Even before 2016 and regardless of when a person was born, though, they couldn’t claim spousal benefits prior to full retirement age (FRA) without also being required to file for their own benefits at the same time.

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When you file for both your own retirement benefits and spousal benefits, you can only be paid essentially the higher of the two benefit rates. And if you start drawing prior to FRA, your benefit rate is reduced for age. Best, Larry


Will My Mom’s Survivor Rate Go Up Now That My Dad’s Second Wife Has Died?

Hi Larry, My dad married my mom, had an affair and remarried. My mom is getting divorced spousal benefits and his new wife was getting spousal benefits on his record as well. My dad passed last year and his new wife just passed a few months ago. Will my mom’s benefit increase now since she’s the sole survivor? Thanks, Bill

Hi Bill, If more than one spouse or divorced spouse is drawing benefits on the account of a worker, their benefit rate is not affected by the other spouse or divorced spouse’s eligibility. So your mother’s benefit rate won’t go up as a result of your father’s widow’s death because your mother’s rate wasn’t adversely affected by the fact that your father’s other spouse was previously drawing benefits based on his record.

Unreduced spousal or divorced spousal benefits payable on the account of a living worker are calculated based on 50% of the worker’s primary insurance amount (PIA). That rate isn’t reduced even if a spouse and several divorced wives are drawing benefits on the worker’s record.

If the worker dies, a widow and any number of surviving divorced spouses who qualify for benefits on the deceased worker’s record can be paid up to the higher of the worker’s full benefit rate or 82.5% of the worker’s PIA. And their benefit rates are not affected by the fact that another spouse or former spouse might be collecting survivor benefits at the same time.

When your father died, both his widow’s benefit rate and your mother’s benefit rate should have been increased if they were previously drawing benefits as a spouse and divorced spouse. But the death of your father’s widow would have no impact on your mother’s benefit rate. Best, Larry


Am I Eligible For Spousal Benefits?

Hi Larry, My husband is 74 and receives a $2,000 Social Security retirement benefit and also a pension. I am 74 and I receive a $500 Social Security benefit and a county government pension. We started receiving Social Security at 62. I didn’t know about spousal benefits. Am I eligible for spousal benefits since my husband’s retirement benefit is higher than mine? Thanks, Cindy

Hi Cindy, Whether or not you could be paid spousal benefits likely depends on the amount of your county pension. If a person receives a pension based on their earnings from a government agency where they didn’t pay Social Security taxes, then any spousal or survivor benefits for which they would otherwise qualify would likely be offset by 2/3rds of the amount of their government pension. That’s due to the Government Pension Offset (GPO) provision.

So if 2/3rds of your county pension is more than the amount of your potential excess spousal benefit, then your spousal benefit rate would be reduced to zero unless you meet an exception to GPO. Your potential unreduced excess spousal rate prior to offset would be calculated by subtracting your primary insurance amount (PIA) from 50% of your husband’s PIA. A person’s PIA is equal to their Social Security retirement benefit rate if they start drawing at full retirement age (FRA). Best, Larry


Does Social Security See State Partnerships The Same Way As Traditional Marriages For Benefit Purposes?

Hi Larry, I was married for 35 years before we divorced. I am now in an official legal Washington state partnership. Does Social Security sees state partnerships the same way as traditional marriages for benefits purposes? Also, I am already receiving benefits after FRA. She is applying for benefits as of December 2020 after her FRA. If I pass, will she receive higher benefits? Thanks, Rod

Hi Rod, Social Security doesn’t view domestic partnerships the same as a marriage for benefit purposes. Social Security recognizes state law when determining whether or not a person is or has been legally married, so you can normally only qualify for spousal, divorced spousal, widow(er), or surviving divorced spousal benefits based on a non-marital relationship if the relationship is classified as a legal marital relationship under state law. I’m not an expert on the various state laws, so I can’t tell you whether or not your partnership will count as a marriage for Social Security purposes.

Whether or not your partner could qualify for spousal benefits if she meets the marriage requirement depends on your relative benefit rates. Assuming that your partner was born after January 1 1954, she could only qualify for spousal benefits if 50% of your primary insurance amount (PIA) is higher than her own PIA. A person’s PIA is equal to their Social Security retirement benefit rate if they start drawing at full retirement age (FRA). Best, Larry