Claiming Spousal Benefits
December 13, 2019 | by Chris Stein, CFP®, Finance Instructor at Colorado State University
Claiming Spousal Benefits

This week, we have a question from a husband wanting to know about claiming spousal benefits: can his wife claim spousal benefits before he claims his own benefits?

“Regarding claims for Social Security, I am 62 and my wife is 66. My benefit at Full Retirement Age (FRA) will be more than twice what hers will be at her FRA. I’m planning to wait until I’m 70 to claim my benefits. Can she claim spousal benefits now, or does she have to wait until I file?”

Claiming Spousal Benefits

Fundamentally, to receive a spousal benefit, the person on whose record you are claiming has to have filed for Social Security benefits. So, in this case, for your wife to claim a spousal benefit on your record, you have to ‘unlock the door’ to the spousal benefit by claiming benefits yourself. But, if you’re not claiming until you reach age 70, she won’t be able to claim a spousal benefit until then. It’s off-limits at this point.

However, what she can claim right now is her own Social Security benefit. You mentioned that she does have a benefit, but that yours is twice hers. As soon as she can claim a spousal benefit, she will want to do that. But in the meantime, she can start collecting her own benefit right away. You may as well be collecting something as a couple over the next eight years as you wait to reach age 70. (As you’re 62 now, it will be eight years before you reach age 70 and your wife, who is now 66, will be 74.)

Is Waiting a Good Claiming Strategy?

Now, I’m not judging whether or not you waiting to reach age 70 is the correct strategy overall. It may be a very wise way to go, but we don’t have enough information to be able to say for sure. Knowing the actual figures, earnings records, what you and she are doing the next few years – things like that – would factor into the optimal claiming strategy. Also, you always want to fit your Social Security claiming strategy into your overall retirement planning picture. As a result, there isn’t just one answer for everybody, no matter how simple some software might tell you the claiming strategy should be for you.

I do think your wife should wait until her Full Retirement Age (FRA) to file, though, if she’s not already there. That would avoid her taking a small reduction in benefits for not having reached FRA. You did say she is 66. That implies she was born in 1953, so her FRA would indeed be age 66. (1955 was the cutoff year for one’s FRA to be age 66. After that, FRA increases by a few months beyond age 66, but that’s not her case.)

Taking her Social Security benefit now will not result in any loss in spousal benefit when you turn your Social Security on at age 70. In her position, I would just turn my benefit on and be paid while I wait for the spousal benefit.

I would also look into filing a retroactive claim back to when she turned 66, as far back as she can go. Social Security allows you to file retroactively back to when you reached FRA, but the limit is six months. So, if your wife is one month past FRA, she can file retroactively for one month. If she is six months past FRA, she can file for six months. But if she is seven or more months past FRA, she can still only get six months of retroactive pay.

By filing retroactively to her actual FRA, she will have to give up the little bit of delayed retirement credit she will have earned by going past FRA without having filed. However, as she’s going to be upgraded to that spousal benefit, it’s not going to make a significant difference in the numbers overall. On the other hand, receiving six months of benefits in a lump sum might buy you two something nice like a vacation.

You’ll want to run some calculations and judge if it makes sense to give up the little bit of delayed retirement credit she has earned, in exchange for a lump sum retroactive payment. In my opinion, it will be worth giving it up. She will probably get more by taking the retroactive lump sum since she’s going to switch to the spousal benefit in eight years. And I’ve never seen a breakeven between delayed retirement credit and lump sum be less than eight years.

In summary, having your wife claim now is pretty much a no-brainer. But whether you should be waiting to age 70 to claim is less clear. (We don’t know enough about your claim to support that necessarily, including health status and other factors.) What we do know for sure is that waiting until 70 will generate the highest survivor benefit for your wife should you pre-decease her.

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