Ask Larry: When Can I File For Social Security Spousal Benefits?


Today’s column addresses questions about when it’s possible to file for spousal benefits, who can still file restricted applications for spousal benefits only, divorced spousal benefits after early retirement benefits and eligibility for disability benefits close to full retirement age. 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.

When Can I File For Social Security Spousal Benefits?

Hi Larry, first thank you for your time! I have read many things about Social Security benefits but I’m still confused. I am married and my husband filed for Social Security retirement benefit after he was 62. He’s 65 now and I’m 60 now. When can I file for spousal benefits? I do not want to file for my retirement benefits until I am 67 to get full benefits. Our earnings are pretty comparable so I’m not sure how much my spousal benefits would be if I can get them. And I’m not sure how you requested spousal benefits and then switch to your benefits later. It all seems so confusing! Please help! I don’t want to file incorrectly. Thanks, Laura


Hi Laura, You could apply for spousal benefits as early as 62, but you can’t file for spousal benefits without also being required to file for your own benefits at the same time. Also, your spouse would have to be drawing his benefits in order for you to potentially qualify for spousal benefits. Only people born prior to 1/2/1954 can file just for spousal benefits without also filing for their own retirement benefits simultaneously, and even they couldn’t do so if they claimed the spousal benefits prior to full retirement age (FRA).

So when you file for either benefit, you’ll be deemed to be filing for both your own retirement benefits and your spousal benefits. If your husband is receiving his retirement benefits at that time, you’ll then receive essentially the higher of your own rate or your spousal rate and your rate will be reduced for age if you start drawing prior to FRA. If your husband isn’t yet drawing his retirement benefits when you file for your benefits, you could potentially claim spousal benefits when he does file, but you’d only qualify for spousal benefits if 50% of his primary insurance amount (PIA) is more than your 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).

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 benefits. Social Security calculators provided by other companies or non-profits may provide proper suggestions if they were built with extreme care. Best, Larry

Am I Eligible To Claim Spousal Benefits While I Wait To Claim My Retirement Benefits?

Hi Larry, My wife will be at her FRA (66) in December 2020. She plans to start her Social Security retirement benefit then. It’s estimated to be about $1,750. I’m a bit younger and my FRA is 66 and five months in Aug 2023. Through our married life, I was the higher income provider. My benefit at FRA is estimated at about $3,100. Am I eligible to claim spousal benefits from my wife’s record while I wait to claim my full retirement benefit in 2023? If so, how much would the spousal benefit be? Thanks, Marc

Hi Marc, Only people born prior to 1/2/1954 are allowed to file for spousal benefits while their spouse is living without also being required to file for their own retirement benefits at the same time. So neither of you are eligible to file a restricted application for your spousal benefits only. This was a part of the law passed in late 2015 and fully implemented in early 2016. Before this law passed, your proposed strategy with your wife filing for retirement benefits at her FRA followed by you filing for spousal benefits at your FRA and finally you filing for your retirement benefit at 70 would likely have been the way to get the most benefits. But that is no longer possible due to the new law. Best, Larry

Is My Ex-Wife Entitled To 50% Of My Full Retirement Age Benefit Even If She Started Collecting Hers At 62?

Hi Larry, We were married for about 20 years when we divorced. We’re still good friends and I think Social Security is taking advantage of her. She retired when she was 62. I’m 63 now, and when I turned 62, she reapplied to get my a divorced spousal benefit based on my record. My income is substantially greater than hers. My understanding is that even though we’re divorced, because we were married more than 10 years, she would be entitled to 50% of what my Social Security retirement benefit would be at my full retirement age. They said that because she retired at 62, she only gets the reduced rate. I already think they previously took advantage of her when they denied her disability, and I can’t help thinking that they are doing it again. At best, it feels to me like they are either wrong or confused.

Is she entitled to a spousal benefit at 50% of my retirement benefit at FRA regardless of the fact that she started collecting her retirement benefit at 62? Thanks, Bill

Hi Bill, She’s not. If a person files for their Social Security retirement benefits at 62 or any time before their full retirement age (FRA), the resulting reduction for age applied to their benefit rate continues to apply even if they later apply for spousal or divorced spousal benefits. And they could only qualify for additional spousal or divorced spousal benefits if their own primary insurance amount (PIA) is less than their spouse’s or divorced 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 Jan filed for her benefits last year at 62. Jan’s full retirement age rate, or primary insurance amount (PIA) is $1,000, but her rate is reduced for age to $729. Jan’s living ex-spouse’s PIA is $2,000, and if Jan filed for divorced spousal benefits, her unreduced excess spousal benefit would be calculated by subtracting her PIA from 50% of her husband’s PIA, which in Jan’s case is $0 (i.e. $2,000 / 2 – $1,000). Therefore, Jan will only be paid her own reduced benefit rate of $729. Best, Larry

Can My Husband Still Apply For Disability Benefits At Age 65?

Hi Larry, I was born in December 1951 and my current husband was born in August 1955. I retired in 2017 and started Social Security widow’s benefits on my deceased ex-husbands record. My current husband who is working became permanently legally blind in 2017. At that time, we filed for Social Security Disability for him but later withdrew the application as my husband wanted to continue working. His work bought special equipment for him. As time has gone on, he has been given less and less work to do and has decided to retire in January 2021. He will be 65 at that time. Is he still able to apply based on his disability? Thanks, Ashley

Hi Ashley, Yes. If a person can potentially qualify for Social Security disability (SSDI) benefits prior to reaching full retirement age (FRA), they’re allowed to apply for SSDI. Drawing SSDI is basically the same as drawing your full retirement age Social Security retirement benefit early, so there’s no reason to file for SSDI if you’re initial date of entitlement would be at FRA or later.

Social Security has special rules for determining SSDI eligibility when a person is determined to be statutorily blind by Social Security’s definition. Statutorily blind individuals are allowed to earn more than non-blind individuals and still potentially be eligible for SSDI. Also, out of pocket expenses for impairment related equipment needed to perform a job can sometimes be deducted when deciding if a person is earning too much to qualify for SSDI. SSDI benefits can even potentially be paid for up to 12 months prior to the month of application if the person could have qualified for benefits prior to filing for them. Best, Larry

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