Ask Larry: Can My Wife Take Social Security Spousal Benefits Now While I Delay Till 70?

Today’s column addresses questions about eligibility for spousal benefits, what being born after 1/1/1954 means for spousal benefit eligibility and working while receiving disability benefits. Larry Kotlikoff is a Professor of Economics at Boston University and the founder and president of Economic Security Planning, Inc.

See more Ask Larry answers here.

Have Social Security questions of your own you’d like answered? Ask Larry about Social Security here.


Can My Wife Take Social Security Spousal Benefits Now While I Delay Till 70?

Hi Larry, After receiving what seems like different responses during various calls to SSA, I am writing you in the hope you can provide some guidance. I was born in January 1952 and my wife was born in September 1951. Neither of us has claimed Social Security retirement benefits. I am no longer working; my wife still works, earning above the expert amount. My estimated benefit at 70 is about $3,900 and my wife’s benefit at 70 is about $1,600.

My wife was told that she could currently file to collect 50% of the benefit I would have received at 66 without my having filed. Is that correct? Assuming yes, and given that she has gone on record with the SSA for a protected filing, is it correct that she can claim that benefit going back six months? She was told that when she reaches 70, she could either continue to receive her spousal benefit or her own retirement benefit, whichever is higher. Is that correct?

Can my wife is then switch over to taking a new spousal benefit of 50% of my monthly amount I will get at 70 when I start collecting?

Lastly, can I now get spousal benefits for the four months before I turn 70 even if at the same time she’s getting her own spousal benefit? And could I then switch to my retirement benefit when I turn 70?

Do I have any of this right? Thanks, Patrick

Hi Patrick, Your wife can’t qualify for spousal benefits at least until you start drawing your retirement benefits. The most that your wife could be paid is her own benefit rate or 50% of your primary insurance amount (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).

Again, though, your wife can’t qualify for spousal benefits at least until you start drawing your retirement benefits, and even then she could only be paid up to the higher of her own amount or 50% of your PIA, not 50% of your age 70 rate.

Nor could you collect spousal benefits from your wife’s account unless she is drawing her own benefits. Based on the benefit rates in your question, it sounds like your wife should probably have filed for her benefits at her FRA. You could have then collected spousal benefits starting at your FRA and then switched to drawing your retirement benefits at 70. And your wife could then file for an excess spousal benefit when you start drawing on your own record.

Unfortunately, a person can only claim benefits retroactively for up to six months from the date of their application. So your wife could file for her own benefits now and claim six months of retroactive benefits, and you could then claim spousal benefits retroactively for the same 6 months. When you file for your retirement benefit, your wife could take her spousal benefit.

Before filing though, You and your wife may want to use my company’s software — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — to make sure that your figures are accurate and to make sure that the strategy I outlined above is in fact your best option. Social Security calculators provided by other companies or non-profits may provide proper suggestions if they were built with extreme care. Best, Larry


Does What I Read On Social Security’s Website Mean That Since I Was Born In 1955, I Can’t Delay My Retirement Benefits And Take Just My Spousal Benefit?

Hi Larry, In researching our plan to request Social Security benefits I ran across the statement on the social security administration’s website:

“If your spouse’s birthday is January 2, 1954 or later, the option to take only one benefit at full retirement age no longer exists. If your spouse files for one benefit, they will be effectively filing for all retirement or spousal benefits.”

Does this mean that since I was born in 1955, that I cannot delay my retirement benefits while receiving my spousal benefits? He will be 70 in October of this year and he plans to file for his benefits then. What about filing and suspending? Thanks, Kelly

Hi Lisa. Yes, Congress amended the Social Security law in 2015 to prevent people born after January 1 1954 from collecting spousal benefits while allowing their own benefit rate to grow until 70, also known as restoring your application to your spousal benefits only.

Since you were born after 1/1/1954, when you apply for either your retirement benefits or for spousal benefits, you’ll be deemed to be filing for both. In that case, you can only be paid essentially the higher of the two rates and your rate will be reduced for age if you start drawing prior to your full retirement age (FRA).

While everyone can still suspend their retirement benefit at or after their FRA and there are various reasons to do so if someone filed early, the file and suspend strategy is no longer viable for those born after 1/1/1954 because no one can receive benefits on the record of someone who suspended their benefits.

And note that even when it was still viable, it would have been your husband who filed for and suspended his retirement benefits, not you. You would have simply delayed your retirement benefits and filed for just spousal benefits. But as I noted, this is not an option for you unfortunately. Best, Larry


Will I Be Able To Earn More When I Turn 62 Without Being Penalized?

Hi Larry, I’v been on SSDI since 2015 and am turning 62 soon. My current benefit is about $2,175. I have been able to work within the guidelines, making only $15,000 free lancing remotely. But it’s very difficult to live on this amount. When I turn 62, can earn more without being penalized? Thanks, Allen

Hi Allen, Turning age 62 wouldn’t enable you to earn more and still qualify for Social Security disability (SSDI) benefits.

To continue to qualify for SSDI benefits, which will automatically convert to regular Social Security retirement benefits when you reach full retirement age (FRA), you can’t work and earn in excess of what Social Security defines as substantial gainful activity (SGA). The current monthly SGA limit for non-blind individuals is $1,310. That amount doesn’t increase simply because a person turns age 62, or any other age prior to FRA.

In theory, you could opt to switch to drawing Social Security retirement benefits instead of SSDI when you reach 62. In that case, you would be subject to the regular Social Security earnings test rather than the SGA test. The regular Social Security earnings test exempts the first $18,960 that a person earns in 2021 before withholding $1 of their benefits for each $2 that they earn in excess of $18,960.

However, if you switch to drawing retirement benefits at 62, your benefit rate will be reduced for age. SSDI benefits aren’t reduced for age, so they’re paid at 100% of your primary insurance amount (PIA). If you opted to switch to retirement benefits at 62, your monthly benefit rate would effectively be cut by roughly 29%.

Depending on your current SSDI monthly benefit rate, that loss in your monthly benefit amount may well be more than enough to offset the additional amount that you’d be allowed to earn if you switch from SSDI to retirement benefits. Best, Larry


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