Ask Larry: When I Turn 66, Can My Wife Get Social Security Spousal Benefits Regardless Of What I Do?

Today’s column addresses questions about when and how spousal benefits can become available, when survivor benefits are available and how the WEP and GPO can affect their availability and potential effects of remarriage on benefits based on an ex’s record. 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.


When I Turn 66, Can My Wife Get Social Security Spousal Benefits Regardless Of What I Do?

Hi Larry, I’ll be 66 soon, which is my full retirement age. My wife is 64. When I reach my FRA, can my wife can take a spousal benefit on my record that’s the same as 50% of my FRA retirement benefit? If I delay filing for my retirement benefits until 70, is it true that my wife cannot receive 50% of my increased retirement benefit even if she waits to receive benefits until I am age 70? It would still instead be 50% of my FRA retirement benefit amount, right?

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Also, can my wife receive the spousal benefit when I reach FRA even if I still delay receiving my retirement benefits until 70 so that it can still increase at 8% per year? Thanks, Dean

Hi Dean, Your wife could potentially get her spousal benefit, equal to 50% of your full retirement age (FRA) benefit, or primary insurance amount (PIA), if you’re drawing your retirement benefits and she’s at least FRA when she starts drawing. However, if your wife is eligible for Social Security retirement benefits based on her own earnings history she couldn’t get a full spousal benefit. Instead, she’d only qualify for basically the higher of her own rate or her spousal rate.

You’re correct that if you wait until age 70 to start drawing your benefits your wife would not get 50% of your age 70 rate. The most she could be paid as a spouse while you’re living is 50% of your PIA. However, if you wait until age 70 to start drawing and you then die before your wife, she could be paid up to your full age 70 rate as a widow. This is because she was born after 1/1/1954 and the Bipartisan Budget Act changed the rules about who can file restricted applications for spousal benefits only.

Your wife cannot be paid spousal benefits until you start drawing your retirement benefits, so if you wait until 70 to start drawing your retirement benefits, she couldn’t collect spousal benefits before then. You and your wife might want to try my company’s software — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — to fully explore and compare your options so that you can 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


Will My Retirement Check Disqualify Me From Drawing My Widow’s Benefit?

Hi Larry, My husband passed away six years ago. He was a retired army veteran. After retirement, he worked for a security company for a number of years. I am 54 and will retire at age 56, two months and 28 days from the government. Will I be eligible to collect my widow’s benefit at 60 or will my retirement check disqualify me? I had planned on drawing my widow’s benefit at 60 and waiting until 70 to draw my own retirement benefit. Thanks, Beth

Hi Beth, I’m sorry for your loss. The answer to your question depends largely on whether or not you’ve been paying Social Security taxes on your wages. If you’ve been paying into Social Security while working for the government, then your government pension shouldn’t hinder your ability to collect widow’s benefits. However, if your government earnings were exempt from Social Security taxes and you’re drawing your government pension, your widow’s benefits could then be subject to full or partial withholding due to the Government Pension Offset (GPO) provision.

Furthermore, if you receive a pension based on your earnings that were exempt from Social Security taxes, your own Social Security retirement benefits could also be subject to reduction because of the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP).

Your best filing strategy is almost certainly one of the following 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).

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. However, the WEP and GPO provisions could affect your optimal strategy if you’ve worked for wages that were exempt from Social Security taxes. My company’s software — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — could sort all of this out for you and help you determine your optimal filing strategy. 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


Can’t You Get Remarried And Keep Getting Getting Benefits On An Ex’s Record?

HI Larry, Is it possible to still get benefits that are drawn on an ex’s record even after getting remarried? Or does getting married again make you ineligible to ever do so? Thanks, Ted    

Hi Ted, If your ex is still living, then the answer is almost always no. Divorced spousal benefits terminate if the beneficiary remarries, unless they marry someone who is also receiving certain types of Social Security auxiliary or survivor benefits. However, marriages occurring at age 60 or later don’t cause surviving divorced spousal benefits to terminate. Also, if a person is receiving disabled surviving divorced spousal benefits at age 50 or later their benefits wouldn’t terminate due to a remarriage. Best, Larry


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