Ask Larry: Will Social Security Let My Wife Delay Spousal Benefits After Taking Retirement?

Today’s column addresses questions about whether it’s always possible to delay spousal benefits after taking retirement benefits, whether benefits can be suspended after they convert from SSDI to retirement at full retirement age and effects of lump sum non-covered pensions payments. 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.


Can My Wife Wait To Apply For Social Security Spousal Benefits After Taking Retirement?

Hi Larry, I’m confused about spousal benefits. My wife began receiving Social Security retirement benefits earlier this year at 62 1/2. I will begin my retirement benefits this month at 65 1/2.

My wife received a letter to apply for spousal benefits. If she takes it, does this still allow her to get more of my benefits if I die before her? I just don’t understand the calculation of spousal benefits.

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Are we able to wait until she’s say 64 to apply for spousal benefits? If she applies now and the difference is not enough to matter does that application stay active? Thanks, Paul

Hi Paul, Your wife couldn’t choose to wait until later to claim spousal benefits. People born after 1/1/1954 are not allowed to file for either spousal benefits or their own Social Security retirement benefits without filing for both benefits at the same time. So when your wife filed for her retirement benefits, she was also effectively filing for spousal benefits.

So if your first month of entitlement to your benefits is June, then your wife would have to take any excess spousal benefits that she qualifies for starting with June. Doing so won’t help or hurt what she could be paid as a widow.

What will limit the amount that your wife could be paid as your widow is you starting your benefits early. As a widow your wife could be paid up to the higher of her retirement benefit rate or your retirement benefit rate, so the sooner you start drawing your benefits prior to 70, the lower your wife’s potential widow’s benefit rate would be.

If your wife files for spousal benefits and she doesn’t qualify, her claim for spousal benefits would be disallowed but she would still be considered to have already applied for spousal benefits should she ever qualify for them in the future.

Unreduced excess spousal benefits are calculated by subtracting the spouse’s primary insurance amount (PIA) from 50% of the worker’s PIA. A person’s PIA is equal to their Social Security retirement benefit rate if they start drawing their benefits at full retirement age (FRA).

However, the excess spousal amount is reduced for age if taken prior to FRA. You may want to consider using my company’s software — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — to fully analyze the options available to you in order to determine your 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 Benefit Rate Be The Same As My SSDI Rate, And Can I Suspend My Benefits Until 70?

Hi Larry, I started on SSDI after I turned 60. It will probably run until my full retirement age age, 66 years and 10 months. It then converts to standard Social Security retirement benefits, correct?

Will my retirement benefit be the same as my SSDI? Also, can I suspend my retirement benefit until 70 and thus increase it? Thanks, Adam

Hi Adam, The answer to both of you questions is yes. Your Social Security disability (SSDI) benefits will convert to regular Social Security retirement benefits at your full retirement age (FRA), and there will be no change in your benefit rate when that happens.

And, yes, you can voluntarily suspend your Social Security retirement benefits from FRA until 70 in order to earn delayed retirement credits (DRCs). If your FRA is 66 and 10 months and if you voluntarily suspend your benefits for the entire period from your FRA until 70, the DRCs you’d earn would increase your benefit rate by 25.3%.

Note that requests for voluntarily suspension must be submitted to Social Security no later than the month prior to the month that you want the suspension to begin. Best, Larry


Will My Widow’s Benefits Be Cut If I Receive A Lump Sum State Pension Even If I Have 30 Years Of Social Security Covered Work?

Hi Larry, If I received a lump sum state pension but I have worked 30 years in jobs paying Social Security taxes, will my widow‘s Social Security benefits be cut? Thanks, Lynn

Hi Lynn, If the lump sum state pension is based on your own earnings that were exempt from Social Security taxes, then the answer is almost certainly yes. That’s true regardless of how many years of Social Security covered earnings you have.

Social Security’s Government Pension Offset (GPO) provision states that if a person receives a pension, or lump sum in lieu of a pension, based on their work for a U.S. governmental agency, then any Social Security spousal or survivor benefits for which they would otherwise be eligible must be offset by 2/3rds of the amount of their government pension.

The exemption you allude to when you refer to having 30 years of Social Security covered earnings applies to the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP), not the GPO. The WEP is a separate provision that can affect the amount of a person’s Social Security retirement or disability benefit rate. Best, Larry.


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