Ask Larry: How Do I Switch To My Social Security Retirement Benefits During The Pandemic?

Today’s column addresses questions about switching between benefits while Social Security offices are shut down due to the pandemic, how to begin benefits as early as possible and when it may be possible to claim on former and current spouses’ records. 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.

How Do I Switch To My Social Security Retirement Benefits During The Pandemic?

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Hi Larry, Since all Social Security offices are closed due to the covid-19 pandemic, I haven’t been able to find an answer on this. My wife and I were born in 1952. We started taking my wife’s Social Security retirement benefit in April of 2018.

I’m a little unclear on this but from what I can tell, I believe that I filed and suspended my retirement benefit in September 2018 and started taking my spousal benefit from her record then. I would like to switch to my own retirement benefit at 68 in September this year, and switch my wife to her spousal benefit at the same time. Do I fill out a new online application for both of us to start this or do I need to meet or talk with a Social Security employee? What is the easiest way to accomplish this with this virus going on. Your help is appreciated. Thanks, Jerome

Hi Jerome, First I need to clarify that if you’re receiving your spousal benefit now, then you could not have filed for and suspended your own retirement benefits in 2018.

If you had done so, you wouldn’t be able to collect spousal benefits. What you did instead was file a restricted application for spousal benefits only, on which you excluded you own Social Security retirement benefits from the scope of the application. For some reason, many people conflate these different and actually mutually exclusive actions but if you want to restrict your application to your spousal benefit only, filing for and suspending your retirement benefit is the single worst thing you could do. Filing for and suspending you retirement benefit would make it impossible to file a restricted application for spousal benefits only.

So because you haven’t actually filed for your retirement benefit yet, you’ll need to file a new separate application when you decide to switch to drawing your own benefits.

Your wife technically wouldn’t switch from drawing her own benefits to just drawing spousal benefits, but she could file for an excess spousal benefit when you apply for your retirement benefits. Her excess spousal rate would be calculated by subtracting her primary insurance amount (PIA) from 50% of your PIA, and if that’s a positive amount, it would then be paid in addition to her own benefit amount. A person’s PIA is equal to their Social Security retirement benefit rate if they start drawing at full retirement age (FRA). So if your PIA is more than twice as much as your wife’s PIA and if she didn’t start drawing her own benefits prior to FRA, then when you start drawing your benefits your wife will be eligible for a combined benefit rate equal to 50% of your PIA.

Your wife can apply for spousal benefits at the same time that you file for your own benefits, or she could apply anytime after that. You may be able to file for your benefits online at Social Security’s website, but unless Social Security has recently expanded their online capabilities your wife couldn’t apply for spousal benefits online since she’s already drawing her own benefits. So if Social Security offices are closed to the public when your wife is ready to apply for spousal benefits, she’ll likely need to call Social Security to initiate the application process.

However, before switching to your own benefits you may want to give some consideration to waiting until 70 to make the switch. Waiting until 70 would provide you with your highest possible monthly benefit rate for the rest of your life, and it could also provide your wife with her highest possible survivor benefit rate if you die before her. You can use my company’s software — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — software to fully compare all of your options in order to determine the filing strategy that will most likely maximize 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

What Month Should I Claim My Benefits To Get Them As Early As Possible?

Hi Larry, I was born on the first of December of 1958 so I will be 62 this year. With everything that’s going on, I think I may need to file early even though I know it means getting less benefits. It’s not for sure yet but it may need to happen. What effective month would I need to file to get my benefits as early as possible? Thanks, Miranda

Hi Miranda, The earliest month that you can qualify for Social Security retirement benefits is the first month that you’re age 62 for the full month. So, since you’ll be 62 for the entire month of December, you could claim your retirement benefits as early as that month. Social Security pays benefits a month behind though, so your benefit for December won’t be paid to you until January. Social Security allows you to apply for benefits up to 4 months in advance, so you could file your application as early as August. Best, Larry

Will I Be Able To Draw Off Of My Second Husband If He’s Not Retirement Age?

Hi Larry, I am trying to plan for my retirement. I am 59 and I was married for 19 years to my first husband, who is retired military. I do receive a monthly retirement from him. I have been remarried for 20 years now. My second husband is nine years younger than me. Would I be able to draw off of my second husband if he is not of retiring age? Will I need to draw on my own record? I am wanting to retire at 62. Thanks, Holly

Hi Holly, You couldn’t receive spousal benefits from your current husband’s record at least until he starts drawing either Social Security retirement or disability benefits. Nor could you collect benefits from your former husband’s record while you’re remarried.

I don’t have enough information to give you any specific advice on claiming benefits, but you may want to strongly consider using my company’s software — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — to analyze your various options so that you can determine the best strategy for maximizing your benefits. As I noted above, Social Security calculators provided by other companies or non-profits may provide proper suggestions if they were built with extreme care. Best, Larry

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