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This week’s question is from L.H.:
“My Social Security benefit is twice what my spouse receives. She worked part time, and we have been married 54 years. I contacted Social Security, and they stated that because my spouse elected to start drawing her benefit prior to her full retirement age, she could not receive my higher benefit if I predecease her. Is that correct?”
Why Social Security representatives mislead
L.H.: This is an unfortunate example of people being misled by Social Security representatives. It happens more often than it should, but it reflects two things:
- The high demand for advice as more people retire
- Inexperienced Social Security staff who have been recently hired due to the large number of retirements of Social Security staff
If you get a response from someone in a Social Security office that you suspect might be incorrect, you can request to speak with a ‘technical representative.” Every office should have one. This person should be someone with experience who can give you the right answer.
To answer your question: When the first spouse passes, the surviving spouse will receive the higher of the two benefits. In your case, this is your benefit. The fact that your wife claimed her benefit before her normal full retirement age will have no impact on her survivor’s benefit.
You stated that your wife worked part time and claimed her benefit before her FRA. Claiming her benefit before FRA reduced her benefit. To help follow what happens in this situation, suppose that your benefit at your FRA is $2,000, and her retirement benefit at her FRA is $800. Since your wife claimed her benefit before her FRA, her reduced benefit would be smaller — $746 — if she claimed at 65 instead of her FRA of 66.
2 possible scenarios
Depending on when you claimed your benefit, there are two possible scenarios.
First, suppose that you claimed before your wife claimed. Because your wife’s benefit is less than half your benefit, Social Security will pay her a reduced spousal benefit. Half your benefit would be $1,000, but because she is claiming early, this will be reduced. The difference between her benefit at 66 and her spousal benefit is $1,000-$800, or $200. This is called the spousal supplement.
At 65, her spousal supplement would also be reduced — because of early claiming– to $183. (The formula is $200 multiplied by 0.916.) So, her total benefit would be her retirement benefit plus her spousal supplement, which would be $929. (Or, $746 + $183.)
A second scenario is where you have not claimed when your wife claims her retirement benefit. Because Social Security does not pay a spousal benefit until the principal beneficiary claims, Social Security will initially pay out only her reduced retirement benefit, $746. When you claim your benefit, she will become eligible to receive the spousal supplement.
If you claim when she is 66 or older, the amount would be $746 + $200, or $946, since there would be no penalty on the spousal supplement. If she was not yet 66, then there would be a penalty applied to the spousal supplement, as in the first case above.
Note that her decision to claim early will affect her long-term benefit in both cases.
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The questions I’m likeliest to answer are those that will interest other readers. So, it’s better not to ask for super-specific advice that applies only to you.
I hold a doctorate in economics from the University of Pennsylvania and taught economics at the University of Delaware for many years. I now do the same at Gallaudet University.
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Disclaimer: We strive to provide accurate information with regard to the subject matter covered. It is offered with the understanding that we are not offering legal, accounting, investment or other professional advice or services, and that the SSA alone makes all final determinations on your eligibility for benefits and the benefit amounts. Our advice on claiming strategies does not comprise a comprehensive financial plan. You should consult with your financial adviser regarding your individual situation.