Ask Larry: Will My Wife’s Social Security Spousal Benefit Be Half My Benefit If I File At 70?

Today’s column addresses questions about how Social Security spousal benefit rates are calculated, when divorced spousal benefits can be available and widow’s benefits before full retirement age while still working. 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 Spousal Benefit Be Half My Benefit If I File At 70?

Hi Larry, In a previous answer you seemed to be saying that if a wife, who is approximately the same age, 65, as as her husband, files at her FRA of 66 and gets her retirement benefit of say $800 per month and if the husband waits till 70 to file for his retirement benefit and gets ~$3,000 per month, then even though her benefits may only go up very little, say 1% per year, over the 4 years till she is 70, and at that point her benefits are say $840 per month, that her benefits would then suddenly jump to $1,500 a month or 50% of the husband’s when she turns 70?

Do I have this right? Can my wife file to collect her retirement benefit at FRA and then get 50% of my benefit as her spousal at 70 when I file? Thanks, Clint

Hi Clint, Your understanding is not entirely accurate. The most that your wife could be paid for as long as you’re living is the higher of a) her own retirement benefit rate or b) 50% of your primary insurance amount (PIA). A person’s PIA is equal to their Social Security retirement benefit rate if they start drawing at full retirement age (FRA). However, if you die before your wife, she could be paid up to your full rate as a survivor, so waiting until 70 to start drawing your benefits could provide your wife with her highest possible survivor rate.

If your benefit rate if you waited until 70 to start drawing would be $3,000, then your PIA is probably closer to $2,300. If your wife’s PIA is around $800, she could start drawing her retirement benefits when she’s FRA, and she could then file for an additional excess spousal benefit when you file for your retirement benefits. Her excess spousal rate would then be calculated by subtracting her own PIA from 50% of your PIA. Her combined benefit rate would then add up to 50% of your PIA, not 50% of your age 70 rate.

You are correct, though, that if your wife’s own benefit rate would be less than 50% of your PIA even if she waited until 70 to file, she wouldn’t want to wait past FRA to apply for her own benefits. You can use my company’s software — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — to analyze all of your options in order to verify your best overall filing strategy. Social Security calculators provided by other companies or non-profits may provide proper suggestions if they were built with extreme care. Best, Larry

Can I Draw Social Security From My First Husband?

Hi Larry, I was married for 27 years before divorcing my ex but remarried and now we are getting a divorce which will be finalized in November. Can I drawn Social Security from my first husband and what kind of paper work do I need. My age is 66 and planning to retire soon. Thanks, Amee

Hi Amee, My answer assumes that your first husband is still living. You could potentially qualify for divorced spousal benefits on your first husband’s record as early as the month that your divorce from your second husband is final. You can only qualify, though, if your first husband is at least 62 or drawing his benefits. And if you’re eligible for your own Social Security retirement benefits, you couldn’t be paid your own benefits and full divorced spousal benefits at the same time. The most you could be paid is basically the higher of the two benefit rates.

If you were born prior to 1/2/1954 and if you haven’t already started drawing your own benefits, you could potentially file just for divorced spousal benefits and let your own retirement benefit rate grow until you reach 70. Best, Larry

Do You Think I Can Qualify For Benefits?

Hi Larry, My husband passed away 20 years ago. I do have a full time job. Do you think I can qualify for benefit on my late husband’s record? Thanks, Ruth

Hi Ruth, It sounds like you could probably qualify for widow’s benefits as early as 60, but your benefit rate will be reduced for age if you apply prior to your full retirement age (FRA). Also, Social Security has an earnings test that applies until you reach FRA, so if you’re earning too much your benefits may need to be fully or partially withheld.

Your best filing strategy is could be 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. My company’s software — xxxx — could sort all of this out for you and help you determine your optimal filing strategy. Best, Larry

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