• Chris Stein, CFP®

Rules Surrounding Spousal Social Security Benefits

A reader from Connecticut asks about the rules surrounding when to claim a spousal Social Security benefit.


"My husband is one year younger than me and is the higher earner. We will both wait until we are 67 to apply for Social Security retirement benefits. Can I start collecting my benefit at my Full Retirement Age (FRA) when I turn 67, and then one year later, when my husband starts collecting at his FRA, switch to spousal benefits (which would be significantly higher than mine)? Or do I have to wait a year until I am 68 to start collecting to get the higher spousal benefit? I know if we apply at the same time (when he turns 67 and I'm 68), I will automatically get the higher amount. So I'm wondering if I can start when I turn 67, then switch when he claims one year later."


Yours is a good question. It gives me a chance to explain how a spousal benefit integrates with your own retirement benefit, which can be confusing. It seems straightforward at face value, but a couple of moving parts can be concerning.


First, waiting until your Full Retirement Age (FRA) means you will not take a reduced benefit. Your FRA is determined by when you were born. Anyone born after 1960 has an FRA of 67. You could claim as early as age 62, but you would receive a reduced benefit if you did. For example, if your FRA is age 67 and you claim at age 62, your benefit would be reduced by 30% compared with what you would have collected at age 67.


Since you and your husband are waiting, you will avoid that.


Now let's look at how spousal benefits work when you have your own benefit. You will receive what they call a "spousal offset." To make it easier, let's use a simple numerical example.


You say your husband is the higher wage earner and is a year younger. That means his FRA is later. Let's pretend his FRA benefit – also called his Primary Insurance Amount or PIA – is $3,000 a month. The spousal benefit is half of that, or $1,500, which you would receive if you had no retirement benefit of your own.


You can only claim a spousal benefit when your husband claims his retirement benefit. So, if you didn't have your own benefit, you'd have to wait until he claims, whether at 67, 68 or even 70. Then, whenever he claims (which opens the door to your spousal benefit), you would receive $1,500 – half of his $3,000.


But you do have a retirement benefit. I don't know the amount, but let's pretend it's $1,000 monthly. When your husband claims – unlocking your spousal benefit – you would get your own $1,000 plus a $500 spousal offset. That tops you up to $1,500, or half of his $3,000.


Technically, it looks like the same $1,500, but in one case, the full spousal benefit is $1,500; in the other, it's made up of your $1,000 plus the $500 spousal benefit offset.


So how does it work when you claim your retirement benefit before having access to the spousal benefit? Well, in our example, you would have access to $1,000 a month at age 67. Then, the other $500 would be unlocked when your husband claims at his FRA. So the simple answer to your question is, "Yes, you can do exactly what you're proposing: collecting your own for $1,000 and getting the total of $1,500 once he opens the door, whenever that might be."

If you change your minds and decide your husband will claim at 70 to get delayed retirement credits, the $500 will be unlocked at that time. But it will not have grown by waiting because delayed retirement credits will not affect the spousal benefit.


Yet your benefit could decrease – if you were to claim before your FRA. I know you are not doing that. However, people might say, "Well, wait a minute, why wouldn't she claim her benefit at 62 and then get topped up to $1,500 when he claims (when she's 68)? She'd be collecting six years instead of just the year she's proposing."


The reason is that your $1,000 benefit would have been reduced if you had claimed it before your FRA. We mentioned your benefit would be reduced by 30% at 62 – and 30% off $1,000 is $700. So you'd be collecting $700 a month for six full years. But Social Security is not going to top you off to $1,500. That's not how it works. Instead, they will have defined $500 as the spousal offset – a fixed amount whenever your husband opens the door. And they will add that to your benefit.


If your benefit is only $700 (instead of $1,000), adding $500 to it will total $1,200 (instead of $1,500). Your benefit will have been permanently reduced, and Social Security will not "fix" it by increasing the spousal benefit when you have access to it later.


Your spousal benefit could also be reduced if you claimed it before your FRA. You're not considering this, but in another scenario, say you started this process earlier. Say you turn on your benefit at age 62 ($700), your husband decides to claim at 63 (before his FRA), and you claim your spousal benefit at that time (also before your FRA). Your offset would be reduced, and you would get less than the full $500. So, the moral of the story is this: once you reach your FRA, you have access to 100% of your FRA benefit (your unreduced PIA). And your spousal benefit will also be unreduced whenever the door gets unlocked for you to access it. But by claiming either of those before your FRA, you could reduce either – or both.


While you could be harmed by claiming early, there is no benefit to waiting beyond your FRA to claim your spousal benefit. It will not increase because of delayed retirement credits. So, as I see it, you may as well follow your proposed strategy: get your $1,000 a month during the year between your FRA and your husband's, then get it topped up to $1,500 – half your husband's FRA amount – when he claims his retirement benefit.


Delayed retirement credits do come into play for you, but as a survivor benefit, not as the spousal benefit. If your husband predeceases you, the lower of your and his benefits goes away. In your case, your benefit will end, and your survivor benefit will be the full amount he was collecting – which will have increased had he waited beyond age 67 to claim. I didn't want readers to think spouses get no benefit from their partner's delayed retirement credits. They do, in their survivor benefit.


We like to consider whether it makes sense for the higher wage earner to wait beyond FRA to have a higher survivorship benefit – such as claiming at 70 instead of 67. In your case, we don't have enough detail to know, but we wanted to share all the rules directly or indirectly related to spousal benefits.


Back to your original question: in short, yes, you can claim your retirement benefit at 67, then get it topped up to $1,500 when your husband unlocks the door one year later.

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