Are There Limits to a Couple's Social Security Benefits?

Social Security benefits are based on individual earnings.

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The Social Security retirement program is a benefit program administered by the Social Security Administration. Depending on their age at retirement, people who paid Social Security taxes through payroll deductions can receive full or reduced retirement benefits for the rest of their lives. Social Security benefits are based on each spouse’s work history, or as spousal benefits related to one person’s work history.

Social Security Retirement Benefits

The Social Security program pays full benefits to workers, including both spouses, who apply for benefits after reaching what is considered full retirement age. The full retirement age is 65 for people born before 1938. It is 67 for those born in 1960 or after. A person who's reached 62 may apply early for reduced retirement benefits. Someone who waits to apply for benefits receives credits for each month she delays, up to age 70.

Individual Eligibility

Married people are each eligible for Social Security retirement benefits based on their individual earnings and contributions to the program. The Social Security program does not apply limits to the total retirement benefits received by married couples. Couples are not subject to a marriage penalty under the Social Security retirement system. The program calculates each person’s lifetime earnings separately to determine the monthly benefit that each receives.

Spousal Benefits

A person whose wages are too low to qualify for benefits on his own may qualify for a monthly benefit based on his spouse’s earnings. People who apply for spousal benefits at age 62 receive reduced benefits. The full retirement age spousal benefit is half of the eligible spouse’s full retirement benefit. A reduction in the amount of spousal benefits occurs when the recipient receives retirement benefits for work that is not covered under the Social Security program. Spousal benefits, including those received by a divorced spouse, do not affect the eligible worker’s benefit amount.

Survivors Benefits

A spouse may receive survivor's benefits based on the deceased spouse’s earnings. Survivor’s benefits are not limited by the benefits received when the eligible spouse was living. The survivor may receive reduced benefits early, or wait until full retirement age to receive full benefits. Eligibility is not affected when survivors remarry after age 60, or after 50 if the survivor has disabilities.

Qualifying Under Two Earnings Records

A person can be eligible for Social Security retirement benefits on his own record and on the record of a former spouse. In those cases, the program uses options to pay the higher benefit amount. If you are younger than full retirement age and are applying for benefits on your own earnings, the Social Security program pays that benefit amount first. If you also qualify for a higher benefit amount as a survivor or a divorced spouse, the program may combine the benefits to equal the higher amount. The Social Security program automatically checks for spousal benefit eligibility if one partner is receiving benefits, or if both partners apply at the same time using the online application.