Ask Larry: Will My Wife’s Social Security Retirement Benefits Automatically Start At 70?

Today’s column addresses questions about retirement benefits after spousal benefits and possibly filing for and suspending retirement benefits, whether pensions count as income under the earnings test and when to apply for survivor’s benefits. 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.

Will My Wife’s Social Security Retirement Benefits Automatically Start At 70?

HI Larry, I’m not quite sure but I believe my wife filed and suspended her Social Security retirement benefit at FRA and took her spousal benefit instead. Does that sound right?

When she turns 70 in two months, will she automatically begin to receive her retirement benefit or will she need to reapply for it. How does she go about switching from spousal to her retirement benefit. Thanks, Josh


Hi Josh, Your wife could not have filed for and suspended her retirement benefit given the circumstances you describe.

If your wife had actually filed for and suspended her benefits at full retirement age (FRA), then Social Security would automatically reinstate payment of her benefits at 70. But your wife couldn’t be drawing spousal benefits if she had actually filed for and suspended her own benefits.

She apparently instead filed for her spousal benefits only, while specifically excluding her own Social Security retirement benefits from the scope of her application. Therefore your wife will need to file a separate application for her retirement benefits in order to establish entitlement to them. Best, Larry

Will My Pensions Be Considered Income?

Hi Larry, I am 62 and have been receiving widow’s benefits for two years. I’m able to receive pensions from two previous employers when I reach 65. Will these pensions be considered income regarding the social security earnings test?

I understand if I work I cannot make anything over the exempt amount. My full retirement age is 66 years and 10 months. Also, I grossed $15,0000.00 in 2020 and I received $10,000.00 in unemployment as my place of work shut down due to the COVID pandemic for a few months.

Do I owe Social Security anything for 2020? Thanks, Betty

Hi Betty, Only earned income counts for Social Security’s earnings test purposes, and pensions aren’t considered earned income.

Unemployment benefits also don’t count as earned income, so as long as your actual earned income was less than $18,240 in 2020, the Social Security earnings test wouldn’t require any of your benefits from last year to be repaid.

And as long as you paid Social Security taxes on the income your pensions are based on, the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) and the Government Pension Offset (GPO) provision won’t apply either. Best, Larry

Can I Still Apply For Spousal Benefits When I Apply?

Hi Larry, I am 67 and my husband died in 2009. Can I still apply for spousal benefits when I apply for my retirement benefit soon? Thanks, Claire

Hi Claire, I’m sorry for your loss. Spouse’s benefits are the Social Security terminology for benefits that are paid to a spouse from the record of a living worker. So you couldn’t qualify for spousal benefits on your deceased husband’s record, but you may be able to qualify for widow’s benefits.

There isn’t enough information in your question for me to be able to give you specific advice, but it’s important to know that Social Security widow’s benefits don’t get any higher if you wait past full retirement age (FRA) to apply for them.

So if you’re age 67 and if you qualify for widow’s benefits, then you should probably apply for widow’s benefits as soon as possible. Best, Larry

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