Social Security Q&A: When Should My Ill Spouse Start Taking Benefits?

Couple Elderly w Papers
Photo by Dmytro Zinkevych /

Welcome to a new Money Talks News feature, Social Security Q&A. You ask a Social Security question, and our expert provides the answer.

You can learn how to ask a question of your own below. And if you’d like a personalized report detailing your optimal Social Security claiming strategy, click here.

Today’s question comes from J:

My husband is 59 years old and works full time. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer about five years ago. He wants to continue working, but at the same time, he wants to enjoy his years here, as he never knows when the cancer will affect him permanently. Should he take his Social Security benefits at age 62 or 66 years and 7 months, his full retirement age?

How claiming early reduces your benefit

J, I’m sorry to hear that your husband has health problems.

In most cases, Social Security benefits stop when someone dies. So, determining the best time to start taking Social Security benefits can be strongly influenced by how long you think you will live.

The rule is somewhat different for married couples, though. In that case, benefits can continue after the first spouse dies. So, the life expectancy of both spouses should be considered when deciding when to start Social Security benefits. Because the surviving spouse will receive the higher of the two benefits, it is particularly important to consider both life expectancies when the higher-earning spouse is ill.

If your husband starts taking his Social Security benefits at 62, his benefits will be much smaller than they would be if he takes his benefits at full retirement age. For example, suppose he is the higher-earning spouse and was born in 1958. His full retirement age is then 66 and 8 months.

If he starts his Social Security benefits at 62, his monthly benefits would be 28.33 percent lower than they would be if he waits until full retirement age. (This reduction varies with the full retirement age. For people who have a full retirement age of 66, the reduction is 25 percent; for people with a full retirement age of 67, the reduction is 30 percent.)

If you survive your husband and he had started his benefits at age 62, the monthly benefits you would receive for the remainder of your life would be 28.33 percent lower than if he had waited to take his benefits at full retirement age.

Another option

Keep in mind that you are not restricted to taking benefits at either 62 or your full retirement age. In fact, every year you delay in taking benefits — up to age 70 — increases the amount of your monthly benefits. Between full retirement age and age 70, the benefits increase 8 percent each year you delay, according to the Social Security Administration.

So, if either spouse has a normal — or longer — life expectancy, it may be wise for the higher earner to delay claiming Social Security benefits until age 70.

Finally, it should be noted that if one spouse dies before 70 and he or she has not started claiming benefits, Social Security computes the benefits as if the beneficiary had claimed them at the time of death. So, if the higher earning spouse dies at age 64, the surviving spouse would be eligible to receive benefits as if his/her spouse claimed benefits at 64.

Surviving spouses who have earned benefits in their own right should be careful about deciding whether to claim their own benefits or survivor benefits. Social Security is quite generous to widows/widowers. For more details on this issue, go to this page on the SSA website.

The bottom line: It’s exceptionally important to account for the life expectancy of both spouses when deciding to claim Social Security benefits.

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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 Ph.D. 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.

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.

Got any words of wisdom you can offer on today’s question? Share your knowledge and experiences on our Facebook page. And if you find this information useful, please share it!

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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