Can My Wife Switch Back to a Social Security Spousal Benefit?

Happy older couple
Photo by Aviles, Asturias, Spain / Shutterstock.com

Welcome to our “Social Security Q&A” series. You ask a question about Social Security, and a guest expert answers it.

You can learn how to ask a question of your own below. And if you would like a personalized report detailing your optimal Social Security claiming strategy, click here. Check it out: It could result in receiving thousands of dollars more in benefits over your lifetime!

Today’s question comes from Ryan:

“I reach full retirement in January 2022. The monthly benefit will be $2,800. My wife will be 62 in May 2020. Her benefit at that date will be $1,200.

Can she file for her benefit at age 62, and then file for 50% of my benefit ($1,400) when I file in 2022? If she waits until she reaches full retirement age, the monthly benefit will be more than the $1,400, but the cash upfront in 2020 is an interesting option.”

3 options based on life expectancy

Ryan: The strategy that you suggest is not possible. Once a person claims their own benefit, they cannot switch back to a spousal benefit, although in some cases a spouse can receive a spousal supplement when the primary beneficiary claims. (For more on this, see below. However, this does not apply in your case.)

Given the information that you have provided, it looks like your wife was born in 1958 and her benefit would be $1,675 at the full retirement age (FRA) of 66 and 8 months. I took this information and generated a report with our algorithm to see what the optimal claiming strategy would be in your case.

Our reports generate three optimal scenarios based on three different life expectancies. In what we call the “normal/normal” case, where we assume a normal life expectancy for both the husband (82) and the wife (86), the optimal strategy is for your wife to claim at 62 and for you to claim at 70. When you claim at 70, your personal benefit will be $3,658. The advantage of your waiting until 70 is that, as the higher earner, you are maximizing the larger benefit. This is the benefit that the survivor will receive, regardless of whether you outlive your wife or vice versa.

In the other two cases, the strategies are different. If you both expect to live a long time, then you should wait until 70 and your wife should wait until 68 to claim a benefit.

The situation would be somewhat different if your wife’s benefit at FRA was less than $1,400. Then, she would receive a spousal supplement when you claimed in 2022. Because she claimed at 62, the supplement would not bring her benefit up to $1,400, as early claiming affects all benefits she might receive. But her benefit would increase.

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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.

About me

I hold a doctorate in economics from the University of Pennsylvania and taught economics at the University of Delaware for many years. Presently, I am teaching at Gallaudet University.

In 2009, I co-founded SocialSecurityChoices.com, an internet company that provides advice on Social Security claiming decisions. You can learn more about that by clicking here.

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.

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