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10 questions: Social Security Spousal Benefits

Photo courtesy of Dan Ruswick on unsplash.com

Photo courtesy of Dan Ruswick on unsplash.com

Note: with the passage of the Bipartisan Budget Bill of 2015 into law, File & Suspend and Restricted Application have been effectively eliminated for anyone born in 1954 or later. If born before 1954 there are some options still available, but these are limited as well. Please see the article The Death of File & Suspend and Restricted Application for more details.

I recently had the pleasure of taking part in a live interactive event with Yahoo! Finance, where folks were able to ask virtually any question they wished. We received and responded to over 200 questions – they’re all on Facebook on the Yahoo! Finance page (click the link to go to the page). One recurring theme played out over and over: Social Security Spousal Benefits are not understood by a vast number of folks.

Naturally I find this to be disturbing.  Social Security Spousal Benefits often represent a large part of the total benefits available to a couple.  This benefit is even more important for many divorced spouses, as it might represent the only benefits available to many divorcees. Understanding this benefit is very important, as SSA staff often isn’t fully-conversant in the options that you have available.

With this in mind, I’ve developed the following list of Frequently Asked Questions, a FAQ for Social Security Spousal Benefits. As more common questions are brought forth I’ll update the list – let me know if there’s anything missing or if any of the FAQ’s needs a better explanation.

Social Security Spousal Benefits FAQ

1. Q: What is the maximum amount of spousal benefits that I can receive?
A: The maximum amount of spousal benefits that can be received is 50% of the other spouse’s Full Retirement Age (FRA) benefit, which is also known as the Primary Insurance Amount, or PIA.

2. Q: How can I receive 50% of my spouse’s benefits?
A: In order to receive a spousal benefit that is 50% of your spouse’s Full Retirement Age (FRA) benefit (also known as PIA), you must be at FRA yourself, and your spouse must have filed for his or her own benefit.  Your spouse could be currently receiving benefits based on his or her own record, or he or she may have filed and suspended – in either case, you’re eligible for the spousal benefit. Lastly, you must not have filed for your own benefit prior to FRA.

3. Q: Can I receive a spousal benefit while delaying my own benefit to achieve the delayed retirement credits of 8% per year?
A: Yes, you can file a restricted application for spousal benefits only, which will allow you to receive the spousal benefit alone, without impacting your own retirement benefit.  This allows you to receive a benefit equal to 50% of your spouse’s PIA while delaying your own benefit to accrue the delayed retirement credits of 8% per year of delay.  You must be at FRA yourself in order to file the restricted application.

4. Q: Can I file for my own benefit at age 62 and later file for 50% of my spouse’s benefit?
A: Unfortunately spousal benefits don’t work quite that way.  When you file for your own benefit prior to FRA, your benefit is permanently reduced.  That reduction amount will follow when you file for spousal benefits later.
An example is: You are 62 years of age, and you’ve filed for your own benefits in the amount of $600.  This represents a $200 reduction from the amount you would have received at FRA.  Later, at FRA, you file for the spousal benefit based upon your spouse’s $1,800 benefit at FRA. Instead of receiving $900 (50% of his $1,800) you would receive $700, which reflects the $200 reduction you have since you filed for your own benefit early.

5. Q: My wife and I are both nearly age 62 and we’d both like to file for our retirement benefits as soon as we reach age 62. Since her benefit is more than double my benefit, can I later switch to a spousal benefit equal to 50% of her benefit?
A: First of all, if you file for your own benefit prior to your FRA, you will not be eligible to receive a spousal benefit of 50% (see #4 above).
Secondly, this becomes a matter of timing. If your wife has already filed for her benefit when you file for your own benefit – that is, if she has filed earlier than you or at the same time – then there is a further complication called “deemed filing”.
Deemed filing applies when you are under FRA and you apply for your own benefit, you are deemed to have applied for all benefits that you are currently eligible for.  If your wife has filed for her benefit, that has made you eligible for the spousal benefit at that time as well. If that’s the case, you will not be able to wait until FRA to file for the spousal benefit, you’ll have filed for your own benefit and the spousal benefit at the same time. And since you’ve filed early for both benefits, both will be permanently reduced, and you’ll get a much lower percentage as the spousal benefit – as little as 30% in some cases.

6. Q: Can I file and suspend when my wife reaches FRA and collect 50% of her benefit?
A: This is a classic confusion. What you’re describing is a restricted application, not file & suspend. Below are the definitions:

File & Suspend – A Social Security beneficiary files for benefits and then suspends receiving benefits. This can only be done when the beneficiary is at or older than FRA. The action of file & suspend results in establishing a filing record with SSA, which enables other benefits to be applied for on your record, such as your spouse receiving spousal benefits. At the same time, since you suspended receipt of benefits, your own benefit amount can continue to grow by way of the delayed retirement credits, at a rate of 8% per year of delay.
Lastly, having established a filing date, if you change your mind at some point in the future prior to re-filing for the enhanced benefit, you could receive retroactive benefits in a lump sum from the filing date to the present, and then continue receiving benefits as if you had filed on the original filing date (and didn’t suspend).
Restricted Application – An application is filed for only a spousal benefit, when the Social Security beneficiary is also entitled to a retirement benefit based on his or her own record. This allows the beneficiary to receive *only* the spousal benefit, while allowing his or her own retirement benefit to continue to accrue the delayed retirement credits at the rate of 8% per year.  Two conditions must be met: 1) you must not have filed for your own retirement benefit prior to the restricted application; and 2) you must be at least Full Retirement Age (FRA) to submit a restricted application.

7. Q: If my spouse (or ex-spouse) collects spousal benefits based on my record, will that reduce the amount of benefit that I can receive later?
A: Spousal benefits (or other dependents’ benefits) do not impact the amount of a current or future benefit that the other spouse, the one whose record the spousal benefits are based upon, can receive.

8. Q: My husband and I are both nearing Full Retirement Age. Can we both file & suspend and receive spousal benefits based upon each other’s record? And then later at age 70 file to receive the maximized benefits on our own accounts?
A: Only one spouse can receive a spousal benefit at a time. (see #2 above) This is in part due to the fact that, in order to file the restricted application for spousal benefits only you must not have filed for your own benefit previously. The other requirement for a restricted application is that your spouse must have filed for his or her own benefit. Therefore, only one spouse can file a restricted application, since the other spouse must have filed. In order for both spouses to delay their own benefits to receive the maximized benefit at age 70, one spouse uses file & suspend, and the other files a restricted application.

9. Q: My wife started collecting her own benefit at age 62. I will be 66 (just less than 4 years older than her) next year. If I file a restricted application can I receive 50% of her age 66 amount, or will it be reduced since she filed early? Then later, when I reach age 70, can she file for a spousal benefit based upon my enhanced, age 70 benefit?
A: The spousal benefit is always based upon the Full Retirement Age (FRA) amount of the other spouse – not the amount of benefit that she is receiving. If you file the restricted application, only available when you’ve reached FRA, your spousal benefit will be equal to 50% of your wife’s benefit had she delayed filing until her own FRA.
Later, when you reach age 70 and file for your own benefit, your wife would be eligible to file for the spousal benefit based upon your record. The spousal benefit will be calculated on your age-66 benefit though, not your enhanced age-70 benefit.  Plus (see #4 above) her total benefit will not be equal to 50% of your benefit – there will be a reduction since she filed early for her own benefit.

10. Q: Spouse age difference is 10+ years and the older spouse is the primary breadwinner. How does this affect these filing strategies?
A: For the older spouse, this person would almost act as if he or she were single. There are no strategies available for that spouse beyond file and suspend, which he or she should probably do at FRA just to have the protected filing date. Beyond that, the older spouse, being the primary breadwinner, should plan to delay benefits as long as possible in order to maximize a future survivor benefit for the younger spouse.
For the younger spouse, deemed filing will apply for any benefits taken prior to Full Retirement Age – so all benefits would be reduced (spousal and his or her own) to the minimum if he or she files at age 62. If he or she waits to file until Full Retirement Age the younger spouse would be eligible for a Restricted Application filing, enabling him or her to file solely for Spousal Benefits at that point and allow his or her own benefit to grow to the maximum allowed at age 70.
Upon the passing of the older spouse (if he or she dies first) the younger spouse would be eligible for a benefit based on the amount of benefit that the older spouse was receiving. If this occurs at or after the younger spouse’s Full Retirement Age, the Survivor Benefit would be 100% of the older spouse’s benefit – this is why it’s important for the older breadwinner to maximize his or her benefit.

37 Comments

  1. Bob says:

    I’ve read all of the questions and comments, and still don’t know the answer to the following: I am 62 and have not filed for benefits. My wife will be 62 in Jan 2017. Can she file for the spousal benefit (35% of my PIA) before I file?

    1. jblankenship says:

      Question 2 in the article above touches on this: in order for one spouse to receive a spousal benefit based on the other spouse’s record, the other spouse must have filed for his or her own benefits.

      So the answer to your question is no, your wife cannot receive spousal benefits based on your record before you have filed for your own benefit.

  2. ronald wicks says:

    Jim, My wife worked for the VA for 21 years, will she be able to get any or all of my benefits upon my death?
    Thanks, Ron Wicks

    1. jblankenship says:

      Without knowing the amounts involved for Social Security benefits and her pension, I cannot say. The Government Pension Offset reduces a survivor benefit by 2/3 of the amount of the government pension being received.

      jb

  3. ronald wicks says:

    My wife and I are 74 and 75 respectively. We both draw full benefits from Soc.Sec. Her benefit is much smaller than mine (she was employed by the VA for 20 plus years.
    Can she file for the spousal benefit only, by the 5-1-16 deadline?
    Thanks, Ron

    1. jblankenship says:

      The 5/1/2016 deadline is about suspending benefits, it has nothing to do with your situation.

      If a spousal benefit is available for your wife she can apply for it at any time – but I suspect that there probably is not one available or if there is one it is eliminated by GPO (since she worked for VA).

      jb

  4. Janie says:

    Thank you so much J. B. for you quick response. I have been wondering since I filed last month Dec 2015..

  5. Janie says:

    How soon after being eligible to receive spousal benefits, does a person start receiving benefits? One month, two, three or when?

    1. jblankenship says:

      Generally the month after you file, if you are filing “as of” the current date. If you are filing for benefits in advance you should receive the first check as soon as you’re eligible.

      jb

  6. Ruth Ann Hunt says:

    My husband died at 61 yrs old. I was 50 yrs old at the time of his death. I was allowed to take his social security at 59 yrs old due to being his widow. My husband never received any of his social security as far as I can remember. Do I have any additional benefit loophole benefits due? I am now 68 yrs old.

    1. jblankenship says:

      You would only have an increase to benefits if your own earnings record produced a larger benefit than what your late husband’s record produces. You can check with SSA to find out for sure.

      jb

  7. Pat says:

    I will reach FRA six months before my husband reaches his FRA. At FRA can I apply for spousal benefits? Or do I need to wait until he reaches FRA, files and then file for spousal benefits? I would loose six months of benefits. Or..At FRA can I file for my own benefit on my work record which is lower and six months later when he applies for his benefit at FRA can I switch to the spousal benefit?

    1. jblankenship says:

      Your husband must file before you are eligible for Spousal Benefits, so you would either wait 6 months and file for Spousal Benefits or you could (as you say) file for your own benefit at FRA and then add the Spousal Benefit increase, effectively replacing your benefit with the Spousal Benefit (assuming the Spousal is larger than your own).

      jb

      1. Pat says:

        Thank you, jb! I am doing the best I can to come up with the best long term strategy for us. Still not quite certain what would be best for us and it’s a big decision.
        I will be reaching FRA in about 9 months. The benefit on my work record is about $125 less per month than my spousal benefit six months later. If I delay filing based on my own record i am looking at how long it would take for me to make up the difference by waiting. But if I wait to file for spousal benefits and restrict my own until age 70 the benefit would grow to about $150 more than my spousal benefit, if I live that long.
        I know that doesn’t seem like much money, but with the financial crisis 7 years ago, we really got hammered. Like many others, we are living on a very tight budget and want to make a wise decision long term.
        Thanks so much for your help on this issue. The whole process seems overwhelming at times.

  8. Suzanne says:

    This is a subject that is difficult to understand and cull information. Thank you for sharing your expertise. I have a nonworking spouse, 66. I am also 66, working. If I file and suspend and then apply for spousal benefits, will those benefits have yearly increases in accordance with the increase in my delayed credits? If today I would receive $1000 and my spouse $500, at 70 if I would receive $1500, would the spousal benefit also increase to $750?

    Stumped,
    SS

    1. jblankenship says:

      On your last question, no – the spousal benefit maxes out at 50% of the PIA of the other spouse.

      With regard to the remainder of your questions – you would not file and suspend and then file for spousal benefits. One spouse may file and suspend while the other files for spousal benefits.

      If benefits are suspended or have not been applied for (as is the case with both spouses if a file and suspend plus a restricted app for spousal benefits is in play) then the “own” benefits for each partner would accrue the 8% per year delay credits until each one files for his or her own benefit.

      jb

      1. Suzanne says:

        Thank you. That helps clarify our thinking.

  9. Mala Khilnani says:

    I am currently 56 years old divorced in 2004 (ex is currently 58). I was married for 23 years to a physician who must have contributed enough to get the maximum SS benefit of $2,663 at FRA.
    At my FRA I should file the restricted application for spousal benefits (50% of $2,663 current amount) and then at 70 collect on myself. It does not matter if my exspouse has filed.
    I need to take my marriage certificate, divorce decree and my spouse’s social sec. # & birthdate to apply. What if the SSec. employee is not aware of the restricted application? How do I go about claiming the spousal benefit based on a restricted application because I hear that if your benefit is more than the spousal benefit one has to get the greater one? Please advise.

    1. jblankenship says:

      Unfortunately the restricted application is not going to be available to you, due to the recent change in the law. It is only available for people who were born before 1954, and if you’re 56 years old now you would not fall into that group.

      jb

  10. Linda Strong says:

    Some clarification on my prior comment. Neither of us has claimed any benefits and my husband plans to continue working untill he is 70.

  11. Linda Strong says:

    Do you have any seminars coming up in Southern California? My husband and I are confused on the best way for us to maximize our benefits. He is 68 and I am 65. I will be 66 in June 2016. My FRA benefit is 930.00. His at this time is
    2766.00 with DRC. We’re not sure what his FRA benefit is. We don’t know if it’s better for me to file for my bebefits now and have him do a restricted application and get half of my benefits or wait till I turn 66 and file for spousal benefits on his.

    1. jblankenship says:

      Hi Linda –

      Under the new rules, the likely best option for you would be for your husband to file and suspend sometime within the next 6 months, and then when you reach age 66 you can file a restricted application for spousal benefits, receiving 50% of his Primary Insurance Amount (estimated as $2,380) which would be approximately $1,190. Then your own benefit can accrue the delay credits to a maximum of approximately $1,225 at your age 70.

      Hope this helps –

      jb

  12. June says:

    My husband and I filed for SS benefits at the the same time 4 months ago, he is 70 and I am 65. I filed for my own benefit, plus was asked if I wanted spousal benefit, I said sure. In effect that added about $25 to my $813 benefit. Now I am wondering if I can rescind the filing date by paying all the benefits back and then when i reach FRA file and restrict and receive just the spousal benefit?

    1. jblankenship says:

      Yes, since it has been less than 12 months since your filing, if I were you I’d withdraw your application, pay back what you’ve received to-date, and then at FRA file a restricted application for spousal benefits. Then you can wait until age 70 to pick up the maximum amount of benefits based on your own record, which should be more than the Spousal Benefit at that time.

      jb

      1. June says:

        THANKS SO MUCH!!!!

  13. M Bedia says:

    I know this post is over a year old, but I have a question that I’m hoping I can get answered here. My husband is 22 years older than I am. He wants to begin claiming his social security benefits at 62 (he’s almost 60 now). A friend told him that his benefits would be limited since I am much younger than he is. We are not interested in spousal benefits of any kind as I have a career of my own. How does my age factor into his benefits, if at all?

    1. jblankenship says:

      The only way your husband’s benefit might be impacted by your age is if he was counting on a spousal benefit from your record. Otherwise, there is no factor of your age/earnings/benefits that applies to his benefit.

      jb

  14. Darrell says:

    Hi Jim,

    I just want to know if I understand this correctly. Here’s a scenario that I’m thinking of: my wife and I are the same age (I’m just 6 months older), and I am the higher earner. (My age 62 monthly benefit would be $1584, and hers would be $452.)

    My main question is, If I claim at age 62, can she still get spousal benefit, or would does this only work if I wait for my full retirement age?

    If that can work, am I correct in assuming that her benefit would be about 50% of my reduced-at-age-62 benefit (which would be about the same as about 30% of what my full benefit would have been?)? ($1584 + $792?)

    Also, maybe this is a stupid question, but if I’m the higher earner, I don’t also get a spousal benefit on her SS, do I? It’s just for the person earning less, right?

    Still trying to wrap my head around this–thanks!

    1. jblankenship says:

      Darrell –

      Your wife could receive a Spousal Benefit based on your record as soon as she reaches age 62, if you have filed for your own benefits. There is no need for you to wait to FRA.

      Her spousal benefit would be calculated as 35% of your unreduced PIA – since you’ve indicated your age 62 benefit would be $1,584 we can reverse the calculation and assume that your PIA would be $2,112 because at age 62 your monthly benefit is 75% of your PIA. 35% of your PIA is $739.

      If you had not filed for your own benefit and you were at or older than FRA you could receive a spousal benefit based on your wife’s record, calculated at that age as 50% of her PIA. But since you’re intending to file at age 62 there would be no spousal benefit available to you since the maximum spousal benefit would be far less than the benefit you will receive based on your own record.

      Hope this helps –

      jb

      1. Darrell says:

        It does indeed. Thanks for the quick and helpful reply, Jim!

  15. Lynn Burke says:

    Sorry that should read spousal benefit not supposed. Auto correct.

  16. Lynn Burke says:

    What about if the younger spouse,by 12 years, is the major breadwinner. The older spouse makes far less money. What can she, the older spouse do to maximize her benefits since she won’t be able to file for spousal benefits until he reaches FRA and she will have to wait until she is 80 years old! Can she file and suspend and begin receiving benefits at 70,and then at 80 file for 50% of her supposed FRA benefit?

    1. jblankenship says:

      Lynn, in the situation you describe, the older spouse must make decisions as if she was a single person, as she will have to wait until (as you say) nearly age 80 to be eligible for a spousal benefit if the younger spouse waits until FRA to file & suspend.

      The good news is that the older spouse can file at age 70 as you suggest (but not file & suspend, there’s no reason to suspend) and then later when the younger spouse reached his FRA and can file & suspend, the older spouse can then file for spousal benefits. There would be no reduction to spousal benefits at that time, since it’s (long) after her FRA.

      Hope this helps –

      jb

  17. maureen weiss says:

    Thank you for the clear explanations in your social security information. I had questions about my ability to file for half of my husbands benefits at 62 yrs old, he is 7 yrs older. Now I understand I cannot do that until age 66. So thanks.
    My question is about filing when I am 66 for half of my husband’s benefits, he would be 73 then. If he had filed at 62 for benefits and received them, then stopped benefits within a year and repaid the IRS, can he still do a file and suspend at FRA, as you referenced for a couple above??

    1. jblankenship says:

      Maureen –

      Yes, if you have withdrawn an application and paid back the benefits within 12 months, the SSA looks at this as if you had never filed an application at all. So file & suspend could be available at FRA in that instance.

      jb

  18. Carl Hansen says:

    Thanks so much for all the great info on spousal benefits. I am still confused on how to file for greater lifetime benefits in our specific situation. My wife is 62, I am 66 in December. My advisor has a software package that indicates I should file for $2200 benefit at 66, then my wife would file for a reduced spousal benefit 1 month later, upon her retirement. I am not sure she could do this, as she would be deemed, according to your article. In the alternate, she would file for a reduced benefit of about $1400 in October of this year. I would then file for a spousal benefit in December (my FRA) and get about $900. In this case I would wait to collect my full benefit of about $3000 at age 70. And in the first case my wife would wait until she is 70 to collect her own benefit,presumably reduced. Both cases work financially for us; what should we do?

    1. jblankenship says:

      Hello Carl.

      I’m in no position to question your advisor, since presumably he has much more information about your situation than I have. However, it is true that your wife could not file for a spousal benefit alone at age 62, she would be deemed to have filed for her own benefit as well which would be greater than the spousal.

      Having said that, I reviewed your second suggested option and there is one issue with it: your wife’s benefits would not change (other than annual cost-of-living adjustments) after she has filed early. This is because the benefit she’s receiving at that age is as much or more than she would receive from a spousal benefit based on your record at any point in the future. So her filing would enable you to collect the spousal benefit alone (after your age 66), and thereby delay your own retirement benefit to age 70; your wife’s benefit would remain reduced throughout though.

      Hope this helps –
      jb

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