Social Security Q&A: How Do Spousal Benefits Work?

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Today’s question comes from Jim:

I am 72, my wife is 62. Can my wife take her Social Security early and then later — at her full retirement age — switch to 50 percent of my Social Security, assuming that’s higher than what she’s getting? Also, if my wife is taking her Social Security early at age 62, would she be eligible to receive a 100 percent spousal benefit at her full retirement age if she’s widowed?

Jim, you ask two questions here. I will consider them in order.

Claim your benefits now, spousal later?

First, your wife cannot take her retirement benefits early and then claim spousal benefits later on.

Since you are receiving benefits, your wife became eligible for spousal benefits when she turned 62. So, if she claims her own retirement benefit, she automatically triggers a claim for any spousal benefit for which she is eligible. The spousal benefit supplements her own retirement benefit. If these benefits were claimed at her full retirement age (FRA), the spousal supplement would be used to bring her retirement benefit up to one-half of your FRA retirement benefit.

If she claims these benefits prior to her FRA, she will be hit with an early claiming penalty on both benefits. If she claims at 62 (given her apparent FRA of 66 and 4 months), the penalty on her retirement benefits will be about 27 percent and the penalty on her spousal supplement will be about 32 percent.

If you want to dive into the details as to how the spousal supplement is calculated, you can find that information here.

Widow’s benefits: How they work

Now, to your second question. If your wife has reached her FRA, she is eligible for a widow’s benefit equal to the retirement benefit you are receiving at your time of death, regardless of whether she has claimed any benefits prior to that time.

The maximum widow’s benefit (at her FRA) would be twice as much as the maximum spousal benefit (at her FRA). So, in this instance, it would pay for her to switch to widow’s benefits upon your passing.

If you die before she reaches her FRA, things are a bit more complicated.

If she has claimed her own benefits and the spousal supplement, she would lose the spousal supplement when you die. So, she has an option. She could switch to widow’s benefits immediately, at a reduced amount due to claiming prior to her FRA. Or, she could stick with her own retirement benefits and delay claiming widow’s benefits until her FRA. That way, she gets the full widow’s benefit.

You did not provide enough information for me provide a detailed computer analysis as to when your wife should claim benefits. In order to provide some rough guidance, I assumed that your FRA benefits were four times larger than your wife’s FRA retirement benefits. Under that assumption, my firm’s software suggests your wife should claim benefits at 62, especially given the 10-year age difference between you two.

Of course, your specific situation may be different than I assumed, so you may still benefit from some inexpensive professional help.

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About me

I hold a doctorate in economics from the University of Wisconsin and taught economics at the University of Delaware for many years. In 2009, I co-founded, an internet company that provides advice on Social Security claiming decisions. You can learn more about that by clicking here.

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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.

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