Ask Larry: Will My Wife’s Social Security Spousal Benefit Be 50% Of Mine At 65?

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Today’s Social Security column addresses questions about how spousal benefit rates are calculated, how continuing to work can affect benefit rates and when survivor’s benefits can become available. 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.

Will My Wife’s Social Security Spousal Benefit Be 50% Of Mine At 65?

Hi Larry, I am 68 and collecting my Social Security retirement benefit. My wife turns 65 this year and has been collecting her retirement benefit since she turned 62. Will she be able to get a spousal benefit that will be half of my benefit starting this year? My benefit well over twice hers. Thanks, Stan

Hi Stan, The percentage of your benefit rate that your wife could potentially collect depends of your and your wife’s ages when you each started collecting benefits. If you’re drawing your benefits and if your wife is collecting her Social Security retirement benefits, then she should already be drawing spousal benefits if she qualifies for them.

Since your wife was born after 1/1/1954, when she applied for her own retirement benefits she was deemed to also be filing for spousal benefits. Since she filed before her FRA, she’d have been deemed even if she was born before 1/1/1954.

If you weren’t already collecting your benefits when your wife started drawing her retirement benefits, then she’d be deemed to have applied to start spousal benefits effective the first month that you claimed your benefits. In that event, Social Security should have solicited an application for spousal benefits from your wife. If they didn’t, then your wife should probably call them to see about applying for spousal benefits.

The only way that your wife could get a full 50% of your primary insurance amount (PIA) is if she were drawing disability (SSDI) benefits, not retirement benefits, and if she waited until her FRA to claim spousal benefits. Otherwise, your wife won’t be eligible for a full 50% of your PIA because she started drawing benefits prior to full retirement age (FRA). Both her own benefit rate and any spousal benefits for which she qualifies will be reduced.

You and your wife may want to consider using my company’s software — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — to ensure your household receives the highest lifetime benefits. Social Security calculators provided by other companies or non-profits may provide proper suggestions if they were built with extreme care. Our software can also confirm your correct benefit amount, ensuring you aren’t being paid too little or too much, which could lead to potential clawbacks due to Social Security’s overpayment to you. Best, Larry

Will My Benefits Increase At 65 If I Retire At 62 And Continue To Work?

Hi Larry, Will my Social Security benefits increase at 65 if I retire at 62 and still continue to work until I’m 65? Thanks, Sally

Hi Sally, Your Social Security retirement benefit rate can potentially increase after any year in which you have Social Security covered earnings, regardless of when you start drawing benefits. However, additional years of earnings only increase a your benefit rate if they’re higher than one or more of your previous highest 35 years of Social Security wage indexed earnings.

If you start drawing your benefits prior to full retirement age (FRA), your benefit rate is permanently reduced for any months that you are paid benefits prior to FRA. However, if you start drawing benefits prior to FRA and if you aren’t paid benefits for some months because your earnings exceed the Social Security earnings test limits, then your benefit rate can be adjusted at your FRA in order to remove the age reduction applied for the months that your benefits were withheld due to earnings. Best, Larry

What Can I Do About Survivor Benefits?

Hi Larry, When I was 58 my husband passed away. I went to the Social Security office and asked about survivor’s benefits and was told because I worked and made too much, I would get none. I am 68 and vacationing with two people who lost their spouses and have drawn since their spouses’ passing and said income has nothing to do with the survivor’s benefits. What can I do? Thanks, Helen

Hi Helen, I’m sorry for your loss. When Social Security told you that you didn’t qualify for widow’s benefits at 58, that didn’t mean that you would never qualify for those benefits. The only way that you could have qualified for widow’s benefits at 58 is if you were disabled. Non-disabled widows must be at least 60 to potentially qualify for benefits.

Furthermore, if a widow is still working and if they apply for benefits prior to full retirement age (FRA), their benefits may need to be partially or fully withheld depending on how much they’re earning.

Since you are now over FRA, you would meet the age requirement for widow’s benefits and your earnings wouldn’t have any adverse effect on your ability to collect widow’s benefits. However, if you’re already drawing your own Social Security benefits, then you could only be paid widow’s benefits if your widow’s benefit rate is higher than your own benefit rate.

I would suggest contacting Social Security ASAP to see about the possibility of applying for widow’s benefits. You can’t be paid widow’s benefits unless you apply for them. If you do qualify for widow’s benefits though, you can only claim a maximum of six months of back pay. You would want to claim the full six months of retroactive benefits if you’re eligible, since widow’s benefits do not increase if you wait past FRA to claim them. Best, Larry

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