Ask Larry: When Should My Husband And I Start Our Social Security Benefits?


Today’s column addresses questions about when and how a married couple can file, survivor’s benefits and the earnings test, divorced spousal benefits before retirement benefits, avoiding filing for retroactive retirement benefits unintentionally and the availability of divorced spousal benefits. Larry Kotlikoff is a Professor of Economics at Boston University and the founder and president of Economic Security Planning, Inc, a company that 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 Should My Husband And I Start Our Social Security Benefits?

Hi Larry, My husband and I are retiring in two years. I will be 62 and he will be 57. My husband is the high wage earner now making $135,00 annually while my wages are $25,000. We have saved enough to live on for eight years so don’t need to draw our Social Security benefits. With our age difference, when would it be best for each of us to start? What about spousal benefits? Thanks, Meg

Hi Meg, There are numerous different possibilities to consider, and only you can ultimately decide when to file for your benefits. Basically, you can file as early as 62 or as late as 70, and the longer you wait to start drawing within that span of time the higher your benefit rate would be.

Since both you and your husband were born after 1/1/1954, you couldn’t draw just spousal benefit only without also filing for your own retirement benefits at the same time. So the only way that spousal benefits could be paid is if one of you has a Primary Insurance Amount (PIA), which is equal to your full retirement age (FRA) retirement benefit amount, that is more than twice as much as the other spouse’s PIA.

I can’t begin to properly respond to you and your husband about your potential best filing strategies knowing only your ages and current earnings levels. You can try using one of my company’s two tools — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — to fully explore and compare all of your options so that you can choose the best possible strategy for claiming 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

Can I Collect Off Of My Wife’s Record Now That I’m 62?

Hi Larry, I’m currently 62. My wife died eight years ago and she was collecting SSDI. Is there anything I can collect based on her record now that I’m 62. I continue to work full time and have no plans of retiring before my Social Security retirement benefits at 66 and 6 months but was curious if I was missing out on survivor benefits. Thanks, Lloyd

Hi Lloyd, I’m sorry for your loss.

It sounds like you could potentially qualify for survivor (widower’s) benefits on your wife’s record, but until you reach full retirement age (FRA) your benefits would be subject to full or partial withholding if you earn more than the Social Security earnings test exempt amount. This year’s exempt amount for people who are under FRA throughout 2020 is $18,240, and Social Security would need to withhold $1 of your 2020 benefits for each $2 that your earnings exceed $18,240 this year. So whether or not you could be paid any benefits depends on your benefit rate and the amount of your earnings.

It sounds like your best strategy for claiming benefits would likely be either to file for reduced widower’s benefits now or as soon as your earnings would permit at least some benefits to be paid and then switch to your retirement benefit at 70 or to file for reduced retirement benefits on your own record now or as soon as your earnings would permit at least some benefits to be paid and then file for unreduced widower’s benefits at FRA. Software can help with this decision. Best, Larry

Can I Apply For Benefits On My Ex’s Record At 66 And Then Apply For Mine At 70?

Hi Larry, I’m getting ready to apply for Social Security this year. I turned 66 last November and want to know if can apply for benefits based on my ex’s, who I was married to more than ten years, work record. He is seven years older than I am. Would this then let then apply for my retirement benefit at 70? How do I find out what my benefit based on his record would be and if I can receive it? Thanks, Kim

Hi Kim, Yes, if you were born prior to 1/2/1954, you can file just for divorced spousal benefits once you reach your full retirement age (FRA) of 66 and then wait until 70 to file for your own Social Security retirement benefits. In order for you to qualify for divorced spousal benefits, though, your ex must either be drawing his retirement benefits or your ex must be at least age 62 and your divorce must have been final for at least two years.

Social Security should be able to tell you how much you could get as a divorced spouse at FRA, which would be equal to 50% of your ex’s primary insurance amount (PIA). A person’s PIA is the amount of their Social Security retirement benefit if they start drawing at FRA. If you file only for divorced spousal benefits at FRA, you could draw those benefits for four years and then switch to your own Social Security retirement benefits at 70 assuming that your own rate is higher than your divorced spousal rate. Your Social Security retirement benefit rate would be 32% higher than your PIA if you wait until 70 to file for your own retirement benefits. Best, Larry

How Do I Make Sure Social Security Doesn’t Start My Benefits 6 Months Before I Reach 70?

Hi Larry, How do I make sure I get all my delayed retirement credits (DRCs) at 70 and decline retroactive benefits if I have to apply by phone or at my local Social Security office? I have been taking my spousal benefits only since my full retirement age. I intended to apply for my own retirement benefits online three months before turning 70, knowing that I could include a statement declining retroactive benefits and print my application for proof.

I just read your answer to another question on procedure and see that because I am receiving spousal benefits, I must apply at my local Social Security office or by phone. I have been reading your books and Q&As for years and know that Social Security sometimes includes six months of retroactive benefits when people apply after full retirement age, then sending the applicant a check for the retroactive benefits. This of course ends up cutting out the last six months of DRCs, permanently lowering the monthly benefit. How do I ensure this does not happen to me? Which method of application is safer — by phone or at the local office? Can I ask for a printed copy of my application? Thanks, Sue

Hi Sue, All you really need to do is specify the month that you reach 70 as your month of election to start your benefits. Social Security only applies retroactivity to an application if the applicant chooses a conditional month of election. So, for example, if you reach 70 in February you’d want to specify February as your month of election to start benefits. If you happen to have been born on the first day of the month though, you’d want to start your benefits the month prior to your birth month since that’s when Social Security would count you as reaching 70.

Whether you file by phone or in-person, Social Security should give you a copy of your completed application when your application is finished. You’ll want to review the application closely to make sure that the correct month of election to start benefits is shown on the application. Best, Larry

Does It Matter That My PIA Is Higher Than My Divorced Spousal Rate?

Hi Larry, I was born before 1/2/1954 and I haven’t started receiving any benefits yet. If I apply for divorced spousal benefits and want to wait till 70 to start receiving my retirement benefits, does it matter if my PIA at 66 is larger than my divorced spousal benefit would be? My ex is over 70 and we have been divorced for more than 20 years and neither of us remarried. Thanks, Cliff

Hi Cliff, Your plan sounds good, and no it doesn’t matter that your Primary Insurance Amount (PIA), which is equal to your full retirement age (FRA) retirement benefit amount, is higher than your divorced spousal rate. Since you were born prior to 1/2/1954, you have still been able to file a restricted application for just divorced spousal benefits only since the month you reach full retirement age (FRA). You can then switch to your own higher retirement benefit rate at 70. Best, Larry

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