Ask Larry: What Social Security Spousal Benefits Can My Wife File For?

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 addresses spousal benefit filing options after reaching full retirement age, when to begin benefits to ensure a certain benefit amount, when and how Social Security makes certain payments, information available online after filing and more on spousal benefits. Larry Kotlikoff is a Professor of Economics at Boston University and the founder and president of Economic Security Planning, Inc, a company that markets Maximize My Social Security and MaxiFi Planner. Both tools maximize lifetime Social Security benefits. MaxiFi also finds retirement account withdrawal strategies and other ways to lower your lifetime taxes and raise your lifetime spending. Most important, it suggests how much to spend and save each year to enjoy a stable living standard through time.

See more Ask Larry answers here.

Ask Larry about Social Security here.

What Social Security Spousal Benefits Can My Wife File For?​​

HI Larry, I turn 70 next January and will apply for my Social Security retirement benefits then. My wife will turn 66 this December and she will continue to work. What options should we consider for her applying for spousal benefits? Thanks, Chuck

Hi Chuck, If your wife’s own Primary Insurance Amount (PIA), which is equal to her full retirement age (FRA) retirement benefit amount, is more than 50% of your PIA, then her best option would probably be to file just for spousal benefits only at her full retirement age (FRA) of 66 and allow her own retirement benefit rate to grow until 70. She has the option of doing that because she was born prior to 1/2/1954, so she wouldn’t be deemed to be filing for her own retirement benefits if she files for spousal benefits at FRA or later.

Your wife could file for reduced spousal benefits when you file for your benefits, but she’d then be deemed to also be filing for her own retirement benefits at the same time. She would then basically receive the higher of the two rates and her benefit amount would be reduced for age for starting to draw prior to FRA. Furthermore, until she reaches FRA her benefits could be subject to full or partial withholding if she earns more than the Social Security earning test exempt amount.

You and your wife may want to use one of my company’s two tools — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — to help maximize your lifetime Social Security benefits. Social Security calculators provided by other companies or non-profits may provide proper suggestions if they were built with extreme care. Best, Larry

When Should I Have My Benefits Start?​​

Hi Larry, I turn 69 in March 2020 and am applying for my Social Security benefits. When should I have my benefit start so I get my full age 69 benefit amount. Thanks, Hector

Hi Hector, You’ll get your age 69 benefit rate if you choose to start your retirement benefits effective in January 2020 assuming that you weren’t born on January 1. That would be the payment that Social Security normally makes in February 2020, since they pay benefits in the month after the month that the payment covers. If you were born on January 1st, you’d get your age 69 rate if you file effective in December 2019. You can file your application up to four months in advance of the month you want to claim benefits, so if you’ve firmly decided on starting to draw at 69 you could apply at any time after September. Best, Larry

Do I Have All Of This Right?​​

HI Larry, I was born in March of 1950 and I decided to wait until 70 to collect my Social Security retirement benefits. The Social Security Administration site says my benefit at 70 will be $3423 and the COLA will be added I assume.

After a ton of reading, I’m still confused about when to actually apply in order to ensure I get the maximum benefit. My current understanding is that I should apply three months before I want to start collecting. So I should apply three months before my birthdate, right? I also read that my first month of actual eligibility will be next April and that that payment will be made on the fourth Wednesday of May since Social Security pays one month in arrears. Do I have all this right? And how to I ensure on my application that I want to start collecting as of my 70th birthday and not before? Thanks, Phillip

Hi Phillip, That’s not quite right. If you turn 70 next March, Social Security would pay you your full age 70 rate if you claim your retirement benefits starting with March 2020. That would be the payment that Social Security normally makes on the 4th Wednesday of April 2020 in your case, since you were born after the 20th of the month. You could choose not to claim your benefits until April 2020, but your benefit rate would be no higher if you do so. So you would simply be passing up a full monthly benefit payment for no net gain.

The exact date that you file your application isn’t important. You’re allowed to file an application as early as four months prior to the month that you want to start your benefits, so an application for benefits starting effective March 2020 could be filed as early as 1/1/2019. You shouldn’t need to do anything special to assure getting your full age 70 rate other than specifying March 2020 in your case as your month of election to start your benefits. Best, Larry

Why Can’t I Get Information About My Benefits Online?

Hi Larry, I voluntarily suspended my Social Security retirement benefits at 66. I was on Social Security disability (SSDI) until 66. I want to start my benefits late in 2019, but on there is no info. It just says that I receive no benefits. So I can’t check my PIA to confirm the increase since I suspended it and what it will be later this year when I restart my benefits. I can’t apply for reinstatement of my benefits. I don’t know why. Thanks, Spencer

Hi Spencer, Social Security’s website has a lot of limitations, and you can’t look up your benefit rate or request reinstatement of your benefits online. To find out your current benefit rate, you’ll probably need to call or visit a Social Security office, although they should mail you a notice telling you what your new benefit rate is after the cost of living increase is added.

You won’t need to reapply for benefits if your payments are in voluntary suspense. You simply need to contact Social Security and request to have your benefits reinstated sometime during the four calendar month period preceding the month that you want to start up your benefits. The request is not required to be in writing, but it’s probably a good idea to do so in order to create a paper trail. You can optionally use a form SSA-795 to make your request. And,keep in mind that Social Security benefits are paid a month behind, so you’ll want to plan ahead.

For example, say you contact Social Security in October of 2019 and ask to have your benefits reinstated effective in November 2019. Your first payment would then be due in December 2019, which is when Social Security normally pays people for November. Best, Larry

Am I Entitled To Some Of My Husband’s Social Security?​​

Hi Larry, I am 73 and still working — am I entitled benefits based on my husband’s work record? He is also still working and he hasn’t taken his retirement benefits yet. He is going to be 70 in a few months and my understanding is that he must he take his retirement benefit. Is that right? I’ve been collecting my retirement benefit since I was 62. Thanks, Kimber

Hi Kimber, You couldn’t get any spousal benefits on your husband’s record at least until he starts drawing his retirement benefits. And when he does, you’ll only qualify for spousal benefits if 50% of your husband’s Primary Insurance Amount (PIA), which is equal to his full retirement age (FRA) retirement benefit amount, is higher than your own PIA. Even if you don’t qualify for spousal benefits, though, you may qualify for survivor benefits if your husband dies before you and his benefit rate is higher than yours.

Your husband isn’t required to file for Social Security ever, but in order to get his highest possible Social Security retirement benefit rate, he would want to start drawing his retirement benefits effective the month he reaches 70. In the meantime, if your husband isn’t already drawing spousal benefits on your record, he probably should file for those benefits as soon as possible, assuming that he’s already at least 66. As long as your husband was born prior to 1/2/1954, he could file just for spousal benefits only at 66 or later while allowing his own retirement benefit rate to grow until 70. Drawing spousal benefits in such a scenario would not adversely affect his own subsequent retirement age rate. Best, Larry

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

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