Ask Larry: Who Should File For Social Security Spousal Benefits?

Social Security may be one of your largest assets. What and when you collect will make a huge difference to your lifetime benefits.

Today’s post addresses potential spousal benefit options, checking on benefit amounts, when spousal benefits can become available, remarriage and the availability of widow(er)’s benefits. Larry Kotlikoff is the founder and president of Economic Security Planning, a company that markets Maximize My Social Security, a Social Security benefits calculator referred to in this post.

See more Ask Larry answers here.

Ask Larry about Social Security:

Who Should File For Social Security Spousal Benefits?​​

Hi Larry, I am 66 and my wife is 62. I heard that she can claim her retirement benefits now I can then claim spousal benefits until I hit 70 at which time she can switch to spousal benefits except based on on my account? Alternatively, I was told that after she files and starts collecting her retirement benefits at 62, I can then retire and claim my full benefits and, when she reaches 66 and 2 months, she can switch to spousal benefits. Is this all true? Thanks, Ben

Hi Ben, Well, a lot of what you’ve been told is accurate, but not everything. Your wife could file for reduced retirement benefits on her record at age 62 or later, at which time you could file for just spousal benefits only on her record. You could then subsequently switch to drawing your own retirement benefits at age 70, at which time your wife could potentially file for spousal benefits. However, she couldn’t simply ‘switch’ to spousal benefits. Instead, she would continue to receive her reduced retirement benefits, plus any excess spousal benefits for which she may qualify.

For example, say Jane’s Primary Insurance Amount (PIA), which is equal to her full retirement age (FRA) retirement benefit amount, is $800, but she starts drawing at age 62 and receives a reduced rate of $600. Jane’s husband John subsequently files for his retirement benefits when Jane is full retirement age. John’s PIA is $2000, so Jane would be eligible to receive an excess spousal benefit of $200, or 50% of John’s PIA minus her own PIA. This excess spousal benefit would then be added to Jane’s own reduced retirement rate, giving her a combined benefit amount of $800 (i.e. $600 + $200).

The best overall filing strategy for you and your wife depends on a number of variables, so you may want to try an expert Social Security benefits calculator as described in other answers to explore all of your options and determine your best course of action. Best, Larry

Does It Sound Like I’m Getting The Right Amount?​​

Hi Larry, I am now almost eighty and have been drawing Social Security since 62. I never thought I was being paid enough so after all these years, I asked and they told me that they would figure it again. I now get $1,550 they take out $100 for Medicare. I took 35 years of highest wages. Does this seem it is correct? I know that after taking it early, you get a lower amount but I had a pretty good salary. Thanks, Peter

Hi Peter, The Social Security benefit calculation formula is too involved for me to be able to give you a yes or no answer. If you think that you might be getting the wrong amount, you may want to consider using an expert Social Security benefits calculator, such as my company’s software or another very careful program, to check the calculation. I will say, though, that it’s very likely that you are receiving the correct amount. Best, Larry

Can I Draw My Spousal Benefits When He Starts Drawing?​​

Hi Larry, I began drawing my Social Security retirement benefit at 63, two months ago. My husband plans on working until 70. Can I draw my spousal benefit on his record when he begins receiving benefits? If not, can I draw widow’s benefits should he die before me? Thanks, Sarah

Hi Sarah, What you can potentially get when your husband starts drawing his retirement benefits is the difference between half of his Primary Insurance Amount (PIA), which is equal to his full retirement age (FRA) retirement benefit amount, and your own PIA, assuming the former is higher than the latter and you are at least full retirement age (FRA) at that time. That amount would then be paid in addition to the reduced retirement benefit you are already receiving on your own record.

For example, say Mary has a PIA of $800, but she starts drawing reduced benefits at age 63 and receives $640. After Mary reaches full retirement age, her husband files for his benefits with a PIA of $2,000. Mary would then be eligible for a spousal benefit of $200 (i.e. $2,000/2 – $800) which would be added to her reduced retirement benefit of $640 to give her a combined benefit rate of $840. If Mary had become entitled to the spousal benefit before FRA, her spousal rate would also have been reduced for age.

If your husband dies before you and after you reach full retirement age, then you could be eligible for a combined benefit rate equal to his full rate inclusive of any delayed retirement credits he earns by waiting past FRA to start drawing his benefits. Best, Larry

Would A Remarriage Affect My Plan?​​

Hi Larry, I am 69 and am currently working. I am also collecting a widower’s benefit. My plan was to draw that until 70.5 and then convert to my retirement benefit. I’ll remarry in a month. How will this new marriage affect my current plan? Will I have to give up collecting as a survivor? Or will my plan still hold up? Thanks, Andy

Hi Andy, First, there’s no reason to wait till 70.5 because there are no increases to your retirement benefit once you turn 70. Remarriages occurring at or after age 60 don’t preclude entitlement to widower’s benefits on a deceased spouse’s record, nor do they have any impact on a person’s own retirement benefits. So no, it sounds like your plan shouldn’t be affected in the least should you remarry now or in the future.

A remarriage could also potentially permit your new wife to qualify for spousal benefits on your record once you file for your retirement benefits, but probably not until you’ve been married for at least a year. A remarriage could also allow your new wife to receive widow’s benefits in the future should you die before her. You can always use an expert Social Security benefits calculator, such as Maximize My Social Security or other very accurate software, to make sure you choose the best possible filing strategy. Best, Larry

Will I Be Eligible To Collect Widow’s Benefits When I Turn Age 60?​​

Hi Larry, My husband was on Social Security Disability from 2002 until he died in December 2016, just shy of his 62nd birthday. I was 53 at the time of his death and I am now 54 years old. I have no dependent children under the age of 18. Will I be eligible to collect Widow’s Benefits when I turn 60? I have always worked and I believe that my earnings will be higher than his when I reach retirement age. I was told by the SSA office that I could file for widow’s benefits at 60, but I would also then be under the earnings test. Thanks, Carla

Hi Carla, I’m sorry for your loss. Yes, it sounds like you could qualify for widow’s benefits as early as age 60, or even earlier if you become disabled. However, your benefit rate will be reduced if you start drawing your widow’s benefits before full retirement age (FRA). And, if you are still working at that time, the Social Security earnings test could limit the amount of benefits that you could draw until you reach FRA.

In all likelihood, your best strategy is one of the following:

  1. File for reduced widow’s benefits at age 60 or as soon as your earnings will permit benefits to be paid, then switch to your own record at age 70; or,
  2. File for reduced retirement benefits on your own record at age 62 or as soon as your earnings will permit benefits to be paid, then file for unreduced widow’s benefits at full retirement age.

An expert Social Security benefits calculator as described in other answers can help you determine which of the above filing strategies is best in your case, as well as when to apply for each type of benefit. Best, Larry

To learn more about your Social Security options, visit Economic Security Planning, Inc.

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