Social Security’s Rules on Spousal Benefits Can Be Tricky. Here Are Some Answers.

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Navigating the maze of rules that surround Social Security retirement benefits can be daunting. A good starting point for retirees and prospective retirees seeking to better understand and maximize their retirement benefits is with the numerous resources offered on the Social Security Administration’s website.

Still, after our recent article on how to maximize benefits, readers continue to have questions on tapping spousal benefits. Here are some answers:

My wife is 67, her full retirement age, and she hasn’t yet claimed spousal benefits. I am 65. Can she claim spousal benefits from me before I claim my Social Security benefits? It would boost her monthly check by about $300. I have received different opinions on this even when contacting the Social Security Administration.  

Your current spouse can’t claim spousal benefits before you have filed for Social Security.

oel Eskovitz, director of Social Security and savings at AARP’s Public Policy Institute, cautions that it wouldn’t be a good idea for you to claim benefits before your full retirement age so that your wife can claim spousal benefits unless you absolutely need to. If you do, your monthly Social Security benefit will be reduced by about 8% a year for each year you claim before your full retirement age. Therefore, your wife’s benefit—which would be 50% of the benefit you receive—would also be reduced.

My wife was born in September 1952 and is receiving Social Security benefits that she earned as a result of her work history.  

I was born in October 1956 and have not yet filed to receive benefits. My benefits would be the larger of both of ours.  Is my wife entitled to spousal benefits, which would increase her monthly benefit from what she is currently receiving?  

Whether your wife is entitled to spousal benefits depends on how much larger your earnings are than hers, says Eskovitz. If your wife is entitled to spousal benefits, Social Security will not pay her the sum of her retirement benefits and her spousal benefits; rather, she will receive the higher of the two benefits. Since spousal benefits can’t exceed 50% of the partner’s benefits, your earnings would have to be significantly more for her to receive more from spousal benefits, Eskovitz says.

Keep in mind, too, that your wife can’t claim any spousal benefits until you first file for Social Security (see answer above). Eskovitz advises that you wait at least until your full retirement age of 66 years and 4 months—before you claim if possible, then ask the Social Security Administration whether your wife may claim spousal benefits.

Answers to frequently asked questions on spousal benefits can be found on the Social Security Administration’s website.

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