Ask Larry: Do I Need To File Early So My Wife Can Get Social Security Spousal Benefits?


Social Security may be one of your largest assets. What and when you collect will make a huge difference to your lifetime benefits.

Today’s column explores the wisdom of relying on ‘knowledgeable’ friends for Social Security advice, whether a restricted application is possible for a couple, filing for spousal benefits while retirement benefits are suspended and how married couples can sequence available benefits. Larry Kotlikoff is the founder and president of Economic Security Planning, a company that markets Maximize My Social Security, a Social Security benefits calculator referred to in this post.

See more Ask Larry answers here.

Ask Larry about Social Security:

Do I Need To File Early So My Wife Can Get Social Security Spousal Benefits?​​

Hi Larry, I’m 61 and my wife is 65. Since I’m working and she’s not, and I plan on filing at 67, can she at her FRA of 66 draw half of my benefits without me filing for my retirement benefit? I’ve been told by a very good friends that if her FRA benefit is less than what half of mine is, she can draw half of my FRA benefit without me having to file early. I’ve known my friends for decades and he’s very knowledgeable about pretty much everything so I figure he must be right about this too but I just want to confirm this with you, too. Thanks, Glenn

Hi Glenn, I hope your friend has more accurate information about the other subjects he holds forth on than he does about Social Security because his claims about Social Security are very, very wrong.

It’s very plain: your wife couldn’t draw spousal benefits until you start drawing your retirement benefits. If your spouse’s own retirement benefit rate would be significantly less than 50% of your Primary Insurance Amount (PIA), which is equal to your full retirement age (FRA) retirement benefit amount, then it might be best for her to file for her own retirement benefits at her full retirement age of 66. Then, if 50% of your PIA is higher than her PIA, she could file for additional spousal benefits when you file for your benefits. Both you and your spouse have many possible filing strategies available to you, so you might try using an expert Social Security benefits calculator as described in other answers to determine your best strategy. Best, Larry

Am I Understanding Correctly?​​

Hi Larry, I would like to know if I am understanding this correctly. I am 63. Is it true that I have to wait until my full retirement age of 66 and 2 months to receive spousal benefits before then collecting my own retirement benefit at 70? My husband is already collecting his full retirement benefits. Thanks, Sharon

Hi Sharon, Unfortunately, that strategy won’t work for you. Congress changed the law in 2015 to require people born after 1/1/1954 to also file for their own retirement benefits whenever they file for spousal benefits, even if they file for spousal benefits at full retirement age (FRA) or later. If you had been born prior to 1/2/1954, you could have used the strategy outlined in your question. You may want to try an expert Social Security benefits calculator, such as my company’s software or other very precise and accurate software, to explore and compare all of your filing options in order to identify which strategy would be best in your case. Best, Larry

Can I File For Spousal Benefits While My Own Benefits Are Suspended?​​

Hi Larry, I filed and suspended my Social Security retirement benefit in January of 2016 at 66. My wife may file for Social Security soon — can I file for spousal benefits on her record when she files for her retirement benefit? Thanks, David

Hi David, You can file, but you’ll only be eligible for spousal benefits if 50% of your wife’s Primary Insurance Amount (PIA), which is equal to her full retirement age (FRA) retirement benefit amount, is higher than your PIA. Since you’ve already filed for your own retirement benefits, even if they are suspended, that continues to be your primary benefit for life. If you subsequently file for spousal benefits the most you could receive as a spouse is the difference between your own benefit rate and the spousal rate, assuming that the spousal rate is higher. If the spousal rate isn’t higher than your own rate, you wouldn’t be eligible for any spousal benefits even if your own benefits are in suspense.

Depending on your and your wife’s relative benefit rates, a potentially more advantageous alternative strategy could be for your wife to file for spousal benefits only on your record at her full retirement age and then file for her own benefits at age 70. Best, Larry

Can I Claim A Spousal Benefit And Defer My Own Retirement Benefit Until Age 70?​​

Hi Larry, My wife is 64 and currently receives a Social Security Disability benefit. When she turns 66 later this year, her benefits will convert to retirement benefits. At that time, I will also be at FRA but will have yet to claim my own retirement benefit. At the time her disability benefit converts to a retirement benefit, can I claim a spousal benefit to receive and continue delaying my own retirement benefit until 70? Thanks, Stan

Hi Stan, Yes, since you were born prior to 1/2/1954, you could file for just spousal benefits only as early as the month you reach full retirement age (FRA) even if that’s prior to the month your wife’s disability benefits (SSDI) convert to retirement benefits. Your wife just needs to be drawing either retirement benefits or SSDI in order for you to potentially qualify for spousal benefits. You could then allow your own benefit rate to grow until age 70. Although the strategy outlined above may be your best strategy, you can use an expert Social Security benefits calculator, such as Maximize My Social Security or another very comprehensive and accurate program, to make sure you aren’t overlooking something. Best, Larry

Is This Plan Correct?​​

HI Larry, My wife, who’s 62, has been getting Social Security disability since she was 51 after suffering a stroke. Her benefits are more than mine. I turned 66 last December and I filed for spousal benefits then. At her FRA, when SSDI automatically converts into a retirement benefit, she’ll voluntarily suspend benefits until she’s 70. When I’m 70, I’ll apply for my retirement benefits on my own record and when she’s 70, she’ll apply for retirement benefits on her own records. Is our plan correct? Thanks, Barney

Hi Barney, Everything that you mentioned are possible options, except that your wife wouldn’t need to apply for retirement benefits at age 70. If her benefits are in voluntary suspense at that time, Social Security should automatically reinstate her benefits effective with the month she turns age 70. Best, Larry

To learn more about your Social Security options, visit Economic Security Planning, Inc.

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