Ask Larry: Can My Wife Get Early Social Security Retirement Benefits Then Switch To Spousal?

Today’s column addresses questions about taking retirement benefits early before switching to spousal benefits at full retirement age, whether or not to notify Social Security about a change in projected income and when widow’s benefits can be started. 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.

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

Can My Wife Get Early Social Security Retirement Benefits Then Switch To Spousal?

Hi Larry, My wife and I are both 62. Our FRA is 66 and six months. I plan to start collecting my reduced Social Security retirement benefit at 65. If my wife also starts collecting her reduced Social Security at age 65, can she then change to claim her higher spousal benefits at her FRA? Would the formula be based on my reduced benefits or at the rate I would have received if I had waited till FRA myself? Thanks, Josh

Hi Josh, Since your wife was born after 1/1/1954, she’ll be deemed to be filing for both her own Social Security retirement benefits and her spousal benefits no matter when she applies for either benefit. She can’t qualify for spousal benefits at least until you start drawing your benefits, but her unreduced spousal rate would be calculated by subtracting her primary insurance amount (PIA) from 50% of your PIA. A person’s PIA is equal to their Social Security retirement benefit rate if they start drawing their benefits at full retirement age (FRA).


For example, say Amy files for her benefits in 2022 at 65. Amy’s husband Bob is the same age as Amy, and he files for his retirement benefits at the same time. Amy’s PIA is $800, and Bob’s PIA is $2,000. Therefore, Amy would be eligible for an unreduced excess spousal rate of $200, which is calculated by subtracting her PIA from 50% of Bob’s PIA (i.e. $2,000 / 2 – $800). However, since Bob and Amy are filing at 65, both of their benefit rates are reduced for age. In Bob’s case, instead of getting his full PIA, his retirement benefit is reduced for age to $1,800. In Amy’s case, both her retirement benefit rate and her excess spousal rate are reduced for age to $720 and $175, respectively. Thus, she’d be paid a reduced combined benefit amount of $895.

You and your wife might want to consider using my company’s software — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — to investigate and understand the options available to you in order to determine the best strategy for maximizing your benefits. Social Security calculators provided by other companies or non-profits may provide proper suggestions if they were built with extreme care. Best, Larry

Should I Contact Social Security To Let Them Know That I’m Not Working?

Hi Larry, I am 65 and worked for a few years after I started collecting Social Security retirement benefits at 62.Of course my benefits were adjusted because I made more than the allowed limit. I now have quit working for good at 65 and feel that my benefit should be adjusted up. I told my husband that I should contact Social Security but he said it’s not necessary because Social Security has the information through the payroll taxes not being withheld for me. What is your recommendation? Should I contact Social Security and let them know that I am not working? Thanks, Laura

Hi Laura, Social Security won’t know that you’ve quit working unless you tell them. They will eventually get copy of your W-2 form for this year, but not until the first part of next year.

The fact that you’ve stopped work won’t increase your monthly benefit rate, though. But, if Social Security is withholding some of your benefits because you told them that you’d be earning more than the earnings test exempt amount this year, then stopping work might mean that they won’t need to withhold as much, if any, of your benefits. You may want to call Social Security and update your earnings estimate so that they won’t withhold any of your benefits unnecessarily. Best, Larry

Can I Start Getting My Widow’s Benefits?

Hi Larry I am 58 and my husband died recently. I want to retire at 62. Should I take my widow’s benefit now and wait to apply for my retirement benefit? Also, I have an ex so I should be able to get divorced spousal benefits, right? Thanks, Molly

Hi Molly, I’m sorry for your loss.

You can’t draw widow’s benefits prior to age 60 unless you’re disabled or if you have an eligible child in your care. However, there is a one-time death benefit of $255 for which you’d probably qualify, so if you haven’t applied for that benefit yet you should contact Social Security.

I assume you mean that your ex-spouse is still living, in which case the earliest you could file for divorced spousal benefits is age 62. However, you could only qualify for divorced spousal benefits if 50% of your ex’s primary insurance amount (PIA) is higher than your own PIA, and if your ex is either drawing his benefits or he’s at least age 62. A person’s PIA is equal to their Social Security retirement benefit rate if they start drawing their benefits at full retirement age (FRA).

Your best filing strategy could be either filing for reduced widow’s benefits early and then switching to your own record at 70, or filing for reduced retirement benefits on your own record early and then filing for unreduced widow’s benefits at full retirement age (FRA).

In your case, though, divorced spousal or divorced survivor benefits could factor into the mix depending on the potential benefit rates involved. Normally, you would want to start out drawing the lower benefit first and then switch to the higher record when it reaches its highest potential rate. Best, Larry

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