A Little-Known Social Security Spousal Benefit Option

Most everyone is familiar with the concept of Social Security Spousal Benefits – if not, click this link for a complete explanation.


In this article, we’ll be discussing an option that is available to all married recipients of Social Security retirement benefits – but you might not have thought of it.  For most all married couples, it makes the most sense for the spouse with the higher wage base – that is, the spouse that has earned the most money throughout his or her working career – to delay receiving Social Security retirement benefits as long as possible.


As described in the article about credits for delaying Social Security benefits, each year that you delay receiving your Social Security retirement benefit past your full retirement age (FRA) can result in up to an 8% increase in your benefit amount.  When delaying like this, it often also makes sense for the spouse with the lower wage base to begin receiving benefits at the lower rate, either at the early retirement age of 62, or upon reaching FRA.  Then later, when the spouse with the higher wage base begins taking the increased, delayed, benefits, the spouse with the lower wage base will begin receiving the spousal benefit, based upon one-half of the higher wage base spouse’s PIA.


But Wait, There’s More!

What most folks don’t realize is that, while the spouse with the lower wage base is receiving the reduced benefit, the spouse with the higher wage base can apply for a spousal benefit based upon one-half of the lower wage base spouse’s PIA, beginning at the higher wage base spouse’s reaching FRA.


While this doesn’t necessarily amount to a very large payment, it is money that you are entitled to and should receive.  The spouse with the higher wage base can receive this spousal benefit from FRA up to the time when election is made to begin receiving the delayed benefit based on his or her own record, at age 70.  At that time, the spouse with the lower wage base will begin receiving the spousal benefit based upon the higher wage based spouse’s PIA, as well.


Quick Example



Let’s say Jane and Bob are a stereotypical couple – Jane didn’t work outside the home while their children were in school, while Bob has worked and earned Social Security credits since age 21.  As a result Jane’s PIA is considerably lower than Bob’s.  (Keep in mind, the roles could easily be reversed, depending upon circumstances.)


So at age 62, Jane begins drawing her Social Security retirement benefit, in the amount of $1,000 per month (PIA of $1,333).  They have decided to delay Bob’s benefit as long as possible, to his age 70.  Once Jane reaches FRA, when both of them are age 66, Bob can now begin drawing a spousal benefit based upon Jane’s PIA.  So Bob can draw a spousal benefit equal to 50% of Jane’s PIA, or $666.50 per month.


When the couple reaches age 70, Bob applies for and begins receiving his full, delayed benefit – which is approximately $3,600 per month (PIA of ~$2,650).  Jane’s benefit has grown to $1,250 – but now she will also receive an extra $75 per month in spousal benefits, bringing her total benefit to 50% of Bob’s PIA, or $1,325.


That’s all there is to it.  It may not seem like a lot of money, why would you not go for it?

About the author

Jim Blankenship, CFP®, EA

Jim Blankenship is the founder and principal of Blankenship Financial Planning, Ltd., a financial planning firm providing hourly, as-needed financial planning and advice. A financial services professional for over 25 years, Jim is a CFP professional and has earned the Enrolled Agent designation, a designation that qualifies him as enrolled to practice before the IRS. Jim is also a NAPFA-registered financial advisor, which designates him as a Fee-Only Financial Advisor.

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  • Husband over 70 continuing to work and contributing still to social security. Will his benefit increase? I will be 66 March 2017 so because my benefit would be half I am waiting for spousal 50 %. It is twice as much as mine.

    • If your husband has not filed for Social Security at this point, he should because there is no increase to his benefits by delaying further. His continued work could still continue to increase benefits in the future but he should file now if he hasn’t already.

  • My wife started to collect benefits at age 62 and11 months, I collected the spousal benefit at the same time, my age 66. I plan to collect full benefits at age 70, at age 67 if my wife was to suspend her benefits and join the workforce would her social security benefit increase?

  • I’m wondering I am 50 years old I draw SSI disability my husband ex-husband is still working he is 55 can I draw off of his pension now?

    • You must be at least age 62 to be eligible for spousal benefits based on your ex’s record. He would also have to be at least age 62, but since he’ll be 67 when you reach age 62 that will be covered at that point.

  • Help..I am very confused! My husband is 69 and collected SS from age 62. ~1700.00/month. I am 63 and applied for social security based on my earnings and was told my benefit would be `1700.00 month. My husband thinks I should apply for SS based on his earnings and wait til I am 70 to receive my full benefits. If I did such, how much would I get each month at 63 and how much would I get when I am 70 and he is 76?? Sorry to be so be so unknowlegeable.
    PCF

    • The short answer is that you can’t do that. If you want benefits today, at your age of 63, you will (effectively) be applying for the largest available benefit – which will include the spousal benefit – at a reduced rate of roughly 80% the amount at age 66.

      If you delay filing until age 66, you could file solely for spousal benefits and then at age 70 you would be eligible for the maximum benefit amount, assuming that your own benefit is large enough to surpass the amount of the spousal benefit.

      Regarding how much you would receive, again, if you delayed to age 66, you would receive 50% of your husband’s unreduced benefit at his Full Retirement Age. Just doing some back of the envelope calculations, that works out to around $1,100 per month. Presumably your own benefit is larger than that, since you are eligible for $1,700 now – and again just doing quick math I estimate that by delaying to age 70 your own benefit will have grown to approximately $2,800.

  • Hi Jim, does this work in reverse so to speak. I have a friend Pam, who is 65 but did not work so does not qualify to receive SS benefits herself. Her husband Tim will be 65 in July and I was wondering if she can claim spousal benefits from his SS if he signs up but suspends receiving (he plans to wait till 70 to receive himself) or will this cause his later $ amount to freeze because she is drawing spousal benefits.?? thanks Lynn

  • Sheila,

    If you’re asking if you are eligible to receive the spousal benefit by itself prior to FRA, then the answer is no. If you’re filing for the spousal benefit and you’re under FRA then you are deemed to have filed for both the spousal benefit and your own retirement benefit at the same time.

    After FRA you can file for the spousal benefit by itself and delay your own benefit to as late as age 70 – just not before FRA.

    Hope this helps –

    jb

  • I am planning to retire in July at age 62.My husband has already retired at fra and only receives $375.00 per month because he receives a government pension.My estimated ss per month is $1600.I have a pension/401 k that I am going to receive about $1000 per month.If I wait to fra to receive my social security could I get any part of my husband’s social security? Had he not received government pension his social security would have been $750 per month.

  • Thanks so much! You are awesome (I have a 16 year old)..no one else could answer these questions as clearly as you did. I am filing in July and should get mine and my son’s first checks in December for my October birthday (I wonder if they will also pay my son the 460 benefits for 2 months after he graduates from high school or if it stops after the month of graduation?

    Our local and official SSA agent (who answered our specific questions in a scheduled interview) told me the most I could ever collect from my spousal was 174..I think she figured it at the 75% reduction, instead of the full 50% of his at my FRA. I hope that it isn’t a problem when I file at that office.

    Thanks again for your great help–jille

  • Jille, your calculations appear to be correct.

    In answer to your question in the second-to-last paragraph, by waiting to FRA you would be eligible for a Spousal Benefit factor of $220 (using your figures), which would be added to your reduced earned benefit for your total benefit amount.

    And thank you for your kind words…

    Hope this helps –

    jb

  • Thank you. I think, then if I get 75% of $925(my FRA benefit) at age 62 would be 695, and my son, until he has graduated from high school, gets 50% of my full PIA (= $462) for a total of about $1087. Then, I think I understand that, n, that same year, my husband wil reach FRA and can then get 50% of my full PIA at $462, and we (my son is no longer eligible) will get a total still of $1087. Then, after 2 years, with my husband still working, at age 68, he can stop spousal benefits, file his own increased benefit (at which time he can (1)choose either to file and suspend for 2 more years, if he wants to keep working and increasing his benefit amount to file when he is age 70, or (2) choose to keep working and also file to start collecting his own full benefits, too.)

    Also, at this time, I could get (I would then (at his age 68) be FRA, and could file for the added spousal benefit, which would be added to my permanently reducted benefit of $695. 50% of his FRA PIA of 2290 (= 1145), less my FRA PIA @ 921. So 1145-925 = 220. So, Would I get the full $220, or only get 75% of it @ $165 added to my permantenly reduced benefit of 695 to equal a total for me of the reduced total, or a higher total of $915?

    I am afraid my questions aren’t as clear as I would like them to be…it is so easy for me to get confused. THANK YOU! so much for your insight and knowlege and help! I have been discovering that, too often, some of the ss agents, give conflicting and unknowlegeable answers. I am afraid I am going to make a wrong decision that will end up costing us.

    Thanks again–jille

  • Jille,

    The answer to your first question is that if you start taking your own benefit at 62, this will permanently reduce any benefits that you will receive. If you then wait to FRA to begin receiving Spousal Benefits, the Spousal Benefit factor will be based upon 50% of your husband’s PIA minus your PIA (which is higher than your benefit since you started receiving the benefit at 62). This amount is then added to your reduced benefit on your own record, to come up with your total benefit. Since your own benefit is reduced (less than your PIA), the total amount that you receive will be less than 50% of your husband’s PIA.

    The article was describing the fact that your Spousal Benefit component will not be reduced if you wait to FRA to begin taking that portion of your overall benefit.

    Regarding your second question: Yes, at his FRA your husband could begin receiving a Spousal Benefit based upon your record (half of your PIA), and then at your FRA he could file and suspend for his own benefit, which would stop his Spousal Benefit and allow you to start the Spousal Benefit.

    Hope this helps –

    jb

  • I have an additional question regarding my earlier post: When I file at 62 for my own reduced benefits, when my husband reaches FRA, can he get 50% of my PIA with spousal benefits, and then, at age 68, stop his spousal benefits, file and suspend his own benefits in order for me to receive the higher spousal amount.

  • Could you please explain this one to me? I found this article that seems to say that I can file (at 62) for my own reduced benefits, and then at FRA change to spousal only benefits when my husband (will be 68 at that time)can either file for his own or file and and suspend, resulting in me (then age 66) getting 50% of his PIA. Am I understanding this correctly?
    Thanks!

    Here is the excerpt:

    “The second question is whether it might be optimal for one spouse (say the wife) to collect retirement benefits early, say at 62, and then wait until full retirement to collect unreduced spousal benefits from that point forward. This is feasible if the other spouse (the husband) doesn’t start collecting his retirement benefit before the wife reaches full retirement age. If he starts collecting his retirement benefit when she is collecting her retirement early, she will be automatically deemed to have applied for her spousal benefit and
    will then be forced to take it only a permanently reduced basis. In general, when you apply for early retirement benefits, you are deemed to be also applying for spousal benefits. And when you apply for spousal benefits early, you are also deemed to be applying for early retirement benefits. But, here’s the catch, if you go for early retirement benefits and your spouse is not yet collecting his/her retirement benefit, you are deemed to have applied for your spousal benefit, but then you are undeemed to have applied for your spousal benefit because your spouse hasn’t yet applied for his/her retirement benefit.

    We could not make this up. This system is as complex as is humanly possible. Fortunately, the program knows what to do and its interface will not let you specify spousal and retirement benefit collection ages independently when taking one deems you need to take the other. But the underlying program (not the interface) knows about the undeeming provision and applies it.”

  • Chris, Spousal Benefits (in a situation like yours) should be started no later than your Full Retirement Age, given that your husband has already filed and begun receiving benefits. You should be eligible for 50% of his PIA (the amount he would have received had he waited to FRA to begin receiving benefits).

    You should check with the SSA but I don’t believe there is any retroactive benefit available for you since you didn’t file when you first became eligible.

    Hope this helps –

    jb

  • When my husband reached age 65 (born 8-43) he applied for social security retirement benefits. I have never worked outside the home (born 12-42). I understand I can apply for social security spousal benefits. I have not done so. If I wait until I’m age 70 to apply for spousal benefits, I also understand that I wouldn’t receive a monthly check that equaled more than half of his, but….considering I waited 4 or 5 years to begin collecting spousal benefits, will Social Security reimburse me for the 4 or 5 years I didn’t collect the monthly benefits due me?
    Thank you.
    Chris

  • I reach FRA in October with a benefit of $2300. My wife turned 63 last March. Her benefit at FRA will be $1500. She plans on working until age 65. What are the best strategies/options for taking SS benefits assuming we both live to be 80? TIA.

  • Pat –

    Survivor benefits are only available to the extent that the amount of the Survivor Benefit is greater than the individual’s (the surviving spouse) own benefit. So, unless the benefit that your Mom was receiving was greater than the benefit that your Dad is receiving, there will be no Survivor Benefit for him.

    Hope this helps –

    jb

  • Love your ‘ducks in a row’ :). and here’s my question: My Dad (now age 92) had been the primary wage earner. My Mom had been receiving social security spousal benefits. She has now passed away (at age 86) and my Dad dutifully returned her checks to the SSA office but could not seem to get a good explanation from there… Does any of that spousal benefit become available back to my Dad or is it simply gone for good? and/or where can I find further information to substantiate the outcome either way. I’m been doing a lot of searching (and thus how I found you) because I’m looking to find either a) the terminology/forms needed to file for an adjustment or b)some documentation that shows there’s nothing to be pursued… So far I can find plenty about spousla benefits, widows/widowers benefits, etc. but nothing that quite seems to fit this scenario. Any thoughts about where to look next will be greatly appreciated. Thanks in Advance!

  • Louie C:

    Unfortunately your options are very limited at this stage. Having filed early and passed the 12-month mark since filing, you cannot make a change to the amount you’re receiving. The same would be true for your wife if she files at age 62.

    Early filing is a permanent reduction to your benefit – since the “payback” option is gone after 12 months now.

    Regarding whether or not the rule on payback will change, I seriously doubt if it will change since it was just reduced to 12 months in December 2010, to close a perceived loophole.

    Best wishes –

    jb

  • HI JIM,
    I FILED AT 62 I’M NOW 64. MY FRA IS $1126,I’M RECEIVING $842.
    MY WIFE JUST TURNED 62 AND HER FRA IS $505 AND AT 62 WOULD BE $369.
    I TRIED TO SUSPEND MY BENEFITS BUT RIGHT NOW I PASSED THE LIMIT OF ONE YEAR,I WAS TOLD THIS MAY CHANGE.IF IT DOES CHANGE WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO MAX MY BENEFITS,AND IF IT DOESN’T CHANGE HOW SHOULD I PROCEED?
    TKS SO MUCH

  • No, that’s not an option, Robert. One of you has to be either receiving or File and Suspended on your own benefit, and the other could then receive the Spousal benefit based on the first spouse’s record. Can’t play both ways…

    jb

  • Hi Jim:

    If both husband and wife are of the same age and with about equal pay. Is it possible for both husband and wife to start claim spousal benefit on each other after both of them reach FRA? Then both of them begin receiving the delayed benefit based on his or her own record, at age 70.

    It seems most discussions on spousal benefit are that only one, husband or wife, not both, can claim spousal benefit.

    Thanks,
    Robert

  • Robert –

    Since both of your benefits are equal, it probably doesn’t matter much which of you takes benefit early. There’s not much to strategize about here (in answer to your question “a”).

    Regarding question “b”, the Spousal benefit is based upon your PIA, which is (generally) the benefit you’d receive at FRA. So if your wife delays taking the Spousal benefit to her FRA, she’d get a benefit of half of your PIA, or the amount you would have received had you waited until FRA to claim.

    Hope this helps –

    jb

  • Hi Jim:

    My wife and I recently retired at age 59 and both of us worked. Our calculated social security benefits are virtually equal. At least one of us needs to take reduced benefits at age 62.

    a) What are the best strategy options in this situation?

    b) If I took a reduced benefit at age 62, and my wife waited until FRA (66) and applied for spousal benefits, would she get appx 50% of my reduced benefit, or 50% of my benefit had I waited until my FRA?

    Thanks
    Bob

  • Hello, Roger –

    You can begin collecting Spousal benefits based on your wife’s benefit at any time after your age 62. However, by starting at age 62 you will permanently reduce the amount of your spousal benefit to as little as 35% of your wife’s PIA. Delaying to your Full Retirement Age increases the Spousal benefit to 50% of your wife’s PIA, and any age in between is pro-rated.

    I think you’d want to run the numbers to see if it would be beneficial to start at 62 or wait, but you definitely will be eligible for a benefit as you delay out to age 70 for your own benefit.

    Hope this helps –

    jb

  • Jim,
    I will be 61 in 2 weeks and my wife is 62 and begun collecting SS in Sept at $1640 /month. I want to delay SS until 70 which would give me about $3400 /month. When should I apply for SS ? and can I collect any SS benefit based on my wife’s benefit before I reach 70.
    Thanks for any info!

  • Hi, Don –

    Your wife’s Spousal Benefit (in the situation you proposed) will be based upon the 50% rate, but her total benefit will not be equal to 50% of your Primary Insurance Amount (PIA). This is due to the way the Spousal Benefit is calculated, which is a differential between her PIA and 50% of your PIA.

    So if she started collecting at age 62 and her benefit is $909, then her PIA was roughly $1,205 (probably not exactly, but close). When you reach age 66, if your PIA is $2,200, then half of that ($1,100) is less than her PIA, so there would be no Spousal Benefit payable.

    Just to draw the example out further, if your PIA was $2,800, then the Spousal Benefit would be calculated as $1,400 (50% of $2,800) minus $1,205, resulting in $195. This would be added to her own benefit of $909 for a total of $1,104 in monthly benefits. (Of course, cost of living increases would change these figures, but hopefully this explains it for you.)

    Hope this helps –

    jb

  • I am 61, my wife is 62 and started collecting $909 per month this year. At age 66 my SS will be ~ $2200. Will my wife be able to
    receive and increased amount based upon the 50% rate at my retirement age of 66? Thank you

  • Hi, Kevin –

    That’s a good approximation. The amount won’t likely be exactly $1,150, since there will have been adjustments to the figures (assuming COLA adjustment in 2011) on both her record and her ex-spouse’s record. But you’re on the right track with your calculation.

    jb

  • I’m a little bit confused by the above posts and other research I have done on spousal benefits. My mom started collecting social security at age 62 for $200 per month and had she waited until full retirement age of 66, she would have received $250. She now gets SSI based on an approved Social Security disability and will be 65 in March 2011.

    Her former husband of 15 years can collect $2400 at full retirement age and he will be 61 September 2010. When he turns 62 September 2011 my mom intends to collect the 50% spousal benefit.

    From the above post I calculate 1200 – 250 = $950 to be the spousal benefit. And her total benefit would be $1150, is this correct?

    Thanks,
    Kevin

  • Sometimes it takes a while to get the facts completely straight…

    I mistakenly had the facts down wrong for my response to Alan above: as long as the wife in the example (Alan’s comment above) has applied for benefits at any age that she is eligible to apply, the husband can also apply for the Spousal Benefit (as long as he’s at least age 62). Any adjustments to the Spousal benefit are based upon the husband’s age when applying for the Spousal Benefit, and are factored against the wife’s PIA (not her reduced benefit).

    In the case of the example, since the husband is at FRA, he will be eligible for the full 50% Spousal Benefit based on his wife’s PIA.

    Thank you, again, Alan for pushing me to research this further and correct the rules as were erroneously stated previously.

    My apologies for any confusion this may have caused.

    jb

  • Hello Alan –

    The Spousal Benefit is not available to you until the your wife has reached FRA. In your case, when your wife reaches FRA, you will already be age 70 – you mentioned that she is 62 and you are age 66.

    At any rate, to answer your original question (which is moot given your age differences) you cannot file late and collect back benefits.

    The example above has Bob and Jane at the same age. That’s where the difference lies.

    Hope this helps…

    jb

  • Hi Jim,
    This is follow up. Perhaps I was not clear. My case is identical to Bob above as far as age is concerned, so I don’t understand your comment that is am not eligible. I quote from above: “Lower income worker files early (age 64) and higher income spouse files for spousal benefit when reaching his FRA of 66.” That is precisely my situation, except my wife is 62 and not 64.

  • Hello, Alan –

    Unfortunately, your situation doesn’t allow you to begin receiving the Spousal Benefit until your wife is at FRA. So, you won’t be able to utilize this specific feature, since you’ll be at maximum age (70) when she reaches FRA.

    Sorry that the article is a bit confusing on this matter – I’m working on an updated article which will better explain the provision and (hopefully) remove some of the confusion.

    jb

  • I am 66 and my wife is 62. She is filing for her reduced benefits and I will file for spousal benefits. At 70, I will file for my benefits. My question is, can I file next year for spousal benefits and collect back benefits or do I lose them by not fling immediately. The advantage of delaying is that I will be in a low tax bracket next year.

  • Hi, Tom –

    You’re absolutely correct, I did have the facts stated incorrectly in that example. The Spousal benefit for Jane is based upon Bob’s PIA, rather than the benefit that Bob is receiving. This was updated shortly after publication of the article at the *source* location (http://financialducksinarow.com/2055/a-little-known-social-security-spousal-benefit-option/) but hasn’t been updated at the FiGuide site (as of this writing). I’m contacting the FiGuide team to help straighten it out.

    Thanks for pointing it out.

    jb

  • Mr. Blankenship:

    In the Quick Example included in your February 18, 2010 article, you indicated that Jane would be eligible to receive a spousal benefit equal to 50% of Bob’s delayed benefit at his age of 70. Bob’s delayed benefit was $3400 so you indicated Jane would get $1700.

    I was under the impression that the spousal benefit (not the survivor benefit) is calculated based on 50″ of Bob’s PIA ( despite the fact that Bob did not start taking on his own account until age 70) and that PIA is the benefit amount that Bob would have received at his FRA of 66. If that is correct Jane at age 70 would not receive $1700 but 50% of Bob’s PIA ($2575) which would mean Jane at age 70 would only receive $1287.50.

    Is PIA based on the amount for which Bob was eligible at 66 or at the amount Bob is eligible for at $70 since he delayed taking benefits on his account.

    Thanks

    Tom

  • Hi, Bill –

    Glad to hear that you’re getting a benefit from the articles!

    Regarding your question, the Spousal benefit is always based upon the PIA of the higher wage-earning spouse and the PIA is based upon FRA – it does not pay to delay filing for the Spousal benefit beyond this point. Given that situation, you are right, it always is best for the higher wage-earning spouse to file at FRA (and suspend if that spouse intends to delay to the maximum age of 70) and the lower wage-earning spouse to file for Spousal benefit at that time, assuming both are the same age. If the lower wage-earning spouse is younger, the Spousal benefit will be reduced from the 50% factor that is available at FRA.

    It is important to note that, if the lower wage-earning spouse has filed for a reduced benefit (before FRA), this is a permanent reduction during the life of the higher wage-earning spouse. For example, if the lower wage-earning spouse filed early and received a 75% reduced benefit based on a PIA of $800, the “regular” benefit for that spouse would be $600. When the higher wage-earning spouse applies (and could suspend, it doesn’t change the Spousal benefit) with a PIA of $2,400, the Spousal benefit at FRA of the lower wage-earning spouse would be calculated based on his or her own PIA ($800) versus 50% of the PIA of the higher wage-earning spouse ($1,200), so the Spousal benefit portion would equal $400 ($1,200 minus $800). This $400 Spousal benefit would be added to the reduced “regular” benefit of $600, for a total benefit for the lower wage-earning spouse of $1,000. (COLAs were not calculated for this example for simplicity.)

    Hope this helps!

    jb

  • Hi Jim
    I came across your articles through Google search and am very glad I did – lots of useful information for anyone interested in understanding SSA retirement choices. One question I’ve come across is still a bit confusing as my wife and I approach these decisions.

    Consider the following situation:
    Lower income worker files early (age 64) and higher income spouse files for spousal benefit when reaching his FRA of 66. He intends to delay claiming benefits on his work record until age 70. Here’s the question: Once the higher income worker claims to receives benefit on his record at age 70, is the spousal benefit computed on his original age 66 FRA PIA or is the spousal benefit increased to 50% of his new deferred benefit level at age 70? If the spousal benefit is not escalated based on the deferred amount, it seems right for the higher income worker to file and suspend at FRA of 66 with lower income spouse filing for her spousal benefits at that time.

    Thanks in advance for your clarification on this point.

    Bill

    • My wife started to collect benefits at age 62 and 11 months, I collected the spousal benefit at the same time, my age 66. I plan to collect full benefits at age 70, at age 67 if my wife was to suspend her benefits and join the workforce would her social security benefit increase?

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