Ask Larry: Will Social Security Automatically Start My Wife’s Spousal Benefits When I File?


Today’s column addresses questions about whether spousal benefits are automatic or not, the possibility of receiving spousal benefits after taking retirement benefits at 62 and an unexplained delay in Social Security processing an application. 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 Social Security Automatically Start My Wife’s Spousal Benefits When I File?

Hi Larry, My wife was born in 1952, and I was born in 1955. She has been collecting Social Security retirement benefits on her own record since she turned 66 two years ago. I will be turning 66 years and two months, my FRA. soon and just applied for my Social Security retirement benefits, which are considerably higher than my wife’s.

Does she have to file some kind of application to collect her spousal benefit based on my record, or will Social Security automatically adjust her payment to the higher amount when I start to receive my retirement benefit payments? Thanks, Adam


Hi Adam, Entitlement to spousal benefits is not automatic.

Your wife would need to file an application in order to claim spousal benefits. And since she’s already drawing her own retirement benefits, she won’t be able to file for spousal benefits online. Your wife will need to call Social Security at 1-800-772-1213 in order to initiate the application process.

And just to be clear though, your wife will only qualify for spousal benefits if 50% of your primary insurance amount (PIA) is higher than her own 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). If this is the case, an excess spousal benefit will be added to her retirement benefit amount to make up her total spousal benefit, which will be equal to 50% of your PIA.

Note that since your retirement benefits will begin at your FRA, they’re the same as your PIA. But if you had filed before your FRA or delayed filing until after it, your wife’s unreduced spousal benefits, i.e. spousal benefits begun at or after her FRA, would be either more than 50% of your reduced retirement benefit or less than 50% of your increased retirement benefit.

You may want to consider using my company’s software — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — to learn about and explore the options available to you so you can make an informed decision about 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

Is It Correct That My Mother Can’t Claim Spousal Benefits If She Started Drawing Her Own Benefits At 62?

Hi Larry, My 86 year old mother elected to collect Social Security retirement benefits at 62. My father’s Social Security retirement benefit check is significantly larger than hers so I suggested she look into claiming her spousal benefit based on his record. She said Social Security told her when she elected to receive her own benefit at 62, she eliminated the option to collect a spousal benefit. Is this correct? Thanks, Laurie

Hi Laurie, What your mother was apparently told by Social Security isn’t exactly accurate, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that she would be eligible for spousal benefits.

A person can still potentially qualify for spousal benefits even if they started drawing their own retirement benefits at 62, but only if their primary insurance amount (PIA) is less than half as much their spouse’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).

For example, say Amy filed for her benefits at 62. Amy’s primary insurance amount (PIA), or full retirement age rate is $1,000, but Amy’s benefit amount was reduced for age to $750. The only way that Amy could subsequently qualify for spousal benefits is if her husband’s PIA is more than $2,000, or more than twice as much as Amy’s PIA.

I would need to know the amount of your mother’s and father’s PIAs in order to tell you whether or not your mother could qualify for spousal benefits. She should be able to get that information from Social Security, or she could insist on filing a claim for spousal benefits in order to get a formal determination of her eligibility. Best, Larry

Should I Be Worried?

Hi Larry, I applied on line for my normal retirement benefits three months prior to my full retirement month of October. Normally, I should have seen my first check in November. However, when I check my Social Security account online, it still shows my claim as processing in the initial stage after all this time from the application date.

Shortly after applying, I received a call from Social Security and was asked a few questions and was told everything was fine on my claim. I’ve since called Social Security back twice and was assured everything was ok. But my account still displays the initial/processing status for the application. Should I be worried? Thanks, Ezra

Hi Ezra, I guess not, but I have no idea what might be taking Social Security so long to process your claim. I’m sure the pandemic hasn’t helped matters, but I have no way of knowing exactly how much that’s affected Social Security’s processing times. I would normally suggest following up with Social Security by phone, but it sounds like you’ve already done that more than once.

Your claim has obviously been received by Social Security, so that part’s fine. However, since your claim apparently still hasn’t been processed so far, it sounds like your first payment may be delayed. Best, Larry

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