Ask Larry: Should My Husband Take His Social Security Retirement Benefits Now Or At Age 70?

Today’s column addresses questions about whether to continue delaying retirement benefit till 70 or take them early due to the covid pandemic, how much the earnings test would reduce retirement benefits and requirements for 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.

Should My Husband Take His Social Security Retirement Benefits Now Or At 70?

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Hi Larry, My husband, 69, is collecting Social Security spousal benefits now. He planned on waiting until 70 to collect his retirement benefit. However, since our employment situation has gone south during the Covid-19 pandemic, he’s not sure whether to start collecting it now or to still wait till 70. What are your thoughts? Thanks, Cynthia

Hi Cynthia, You don’t mention your husband’s spousal rate or the amount that he could potentially receive on his own account, so I can’t properly advise you. I can tell you that your husband’s own Social Security retirement rate would increase by 2/3rds of 1% for each month that he delays drawing his own benefits between now and 70. And assuming that his own rate is higher than his spousal rate, his spousal benefits will stop when he claims his own benefits.

Another factor to consider is that if your husband’s eventual benefit rate is higher than your benefit rate and if he dies before you, you would be eligible his full rate as a survivor assuming that you’re at least full retirement age (FRA) when you start drawing as a survivor. You wouldn’t get his full rate plus your own rate though, just the higher of the two. So if your husband starts drawing his benefits prior to 70, it could result in a lower survivor rate for you.

In most cases, the best long term strategy for someone like your husband would be to continue drawing spousal benefits and wait until 70 to claim retirement benefits. However, I recognize that long term goals must sometimes be adjusted due to short term problems. In any case, only you and your husband can decide when to start drawing his retirement benefits, but he may first want to use my company’s software — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — to fully evaluate his options. Social Security calculators provided by other companies or non-profits may provide proper suggestions if they were built with extreme care. Best, Larry

What Would Be The Amount That I’d Have To Repay Social Security?

Hi Larry, In 2016 I received eight months of benefits, $10,544. Social Security suspended them for the last four months, equal to $5,272 due to returning to work part time. The threshold for other income in 2016 was $15,720. My net income at end of year was $23,118. What would be the amount I would have to repay SSA keeping in mind that I did not receive the full year of benefits which would have been $15,816. My income was $7,399 over threshold and payback would be $3,699. But that would be the same amount of payback if I had received all my benefits for the year. Am I having to payback more than I should since I didn’t receive the whole year of benefits? I’ve been trying to get this worked out with SSA to no avail. Thanks, Josh

Hi Josh, Well, if you were under full retirement age (FRA) for the entire year of 2016 and your 2016 earnings exceeded the earnings test exempt amount by $7,399, then you’d be due all but $3,699 of the benefits you were due for that year. If Social Security withheld more than that amount, you should be due a refund of the excess withholding.

However, I have no way of knowing whether or not Social Security has paid you properly since that time so I can’t tell you whether or not you still have an underpayment coming. If you believe that you haven’t received the proper amount of benefits then you’ll need to continue working with Social Security to sort it out. Best, Larry

What Happens If Your Spouse Died So Young That It Would Be Impossible To Be Married For 10 Years?

Hi Larry, My new spouse died in an accident at 22 so it wasn’t possible for us to be married for 10 years. But now I’m approaching the time I’ll be claiming Social Security benefits. Will I be able to claim any benefits on his record even though we were not married for 10 full years? Thanks, Carol

Hi Carol, Ten years of marriage is only required to receive divorced spousal benefits or surviving divorced spousal benefits. If you’re still married to your spouse at the time of their death, you would only need to have been married for at least nine months to meet the marriage duration requirement for widow’s benefits. Or if your spouse’s death is accidental or if you have an eligible child, you may be able to qualify for survivor benefits even if your marriage lasted less than nine months. Best, Larry

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