Social Security Matters: Ask Rusty – Can my wife claim a spouse benefit first?

Published 7:10 am Wednesday, August 31, 2022

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By AMAC Certified Social Security Advisor Russell Gloor, Association of Mature American Citizens

Dear Rusty: I have been getting Social Security since age 66. My wife turned 62 in June. We are thinking of taking her spouse benefits on my record since it would be higher than hers (we checked online). We began filling out the application but do not see a way to let them know we want her to receive spouse benefits and not her own. How do we do that? Signed: Trying to Apply

Dear Trying: You don’t see that option because your wife doesn’t have the option to collect only a spousal benefit from you without also claiming her own benefit. That option was eliminated by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 for anyone born after January 1, 1954. So, if your wife claims any Social Security benefit now, she will be automatically deemed to be filing for both her own benefit (from her own work record) as well as her spousal benefit from you. She can’t delay taking her own benefit when she claims. Your wife’s benefit will consist of her own benefit plus, if she is entitled to one, a “spousal boost” to bring her payment up to her spousal entitlement and, claimed at age 62, both her own benefit and her spousal boost will be reduced. But there are some other factors to consider:

  • If your wife is still working, she will be subject to Social Security’s “earnings test” until she reaches her full retirement age (FRA) of 67. The earnings test limits how much your wife can earn from working and, if the limit ($19,560 for 2022) is exceeded, Social Security will take away benefits equal to $1 for every $2 she is over the limit. If her current work earnings are high enough, it could even disqualify her from receiving early Social Security benefits. The earnings limit lasts until your wife reaches her full retirement age.
  • Your wife cannot collect her full benefits – 100% of her own benefit or 50% of your FRA benefit amount – unless she waits until her full retirement age (67) to claim. But whether she should even claim a spouse benefit at FRA should consider whether her own Social Security benefit, at maximum, will be more than her spouse benefit will be. Your wife’s maximum spouse benefit (at age 67) will be 50% of your FRA benefit amount, but if she delays claiming past her FRA her own Social Security retirement benefit will continue to grow (at 8% per year) until she is 70. If your wife’s personal age 70 benefit will be more than her spousal benefit from you, she may wish to consider forgoing her spouse benefit and waiting until age 70 to claim her own higher personal benefit. It’s a question of which will benefit her most for the rest of her life, which is where her life-expectancy enters the picture. Generally, if your wife is in good health and expects at least average longevity (about 87 for a woman her current age), waiting until the highest available benefit (either her own or her spouse benefit) reaches maximum is usually a prudent choice.
  • Your wife’s survivor benefit as your widow may be a consideration as well. If her benefit as your survivor will be larger than any other benefit she is entitled to, then claiming her other benefits earlier may be smart. For example, if her benefit as your widow (100% of the benefit you were receiving at your death if claimed at or after her FRA) will be higher than either her maximum spousal benefit or her maximum personal benefit, then her best option may be to claim her retirement and spousal benefits earlier. How much earlier would depend on whether she is working and will exceed the earnings limit before age 67.
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As you can see there are a number of factors for your wife to consider before claiming her Social Security, but she cannot claim only her spouse benefit at age 62 and permit her own benefit to continue growing.