Welcome to our “Social Security Q&A” series. You ask a question about Social Security, and a guest expert answers it.
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Today’s question comes from Mark:
“My husband is 65 and I am 63. Neither one of us have started taking Social Security. He is waiting until full retirement age to take his Social Security. Since half of his Social Security is more than I would receive on my own, I would like to take that.
Do I have to wait until my full retirement age (FRA) to take that option? Or can I start mine earlier and switch to half of his when I reach my FRA?”
The dangers of claiming too early
Mark, you are indeed eligible for a spousal supplement, since your FRA benefit is less than half of your husband’s FRA benefit. The amount of that supplement depends on when you claim benefits.
For illustrative purposes, let’s assume that your FRA benefit is $800 a month and your husband’s FRA benefit is $2,400 a month. If you claim benefits at your FRA, you will receive your benefit of $800 plus a spousal supplement of $400, bringing your total benefit up to $1,200 a month (or one-half of your husband’s FRA benefit).
Mark, you should note that you cannot claim a spousal supplement until your husband claims his own benefits. You can claim your own benefits at any time once you reach age 62. But you need to coordinate claiming the spousal supplement with your husband’s claiming actions.
In this example, you would receive the spousal supplement at the point where your husband claims his own benefit. So, if you claim first, eligibility to receive your spousal supplement is determined entirely by your husband’s claiming decision.
You should be aware that there are significant penalties for claiming either your retirement benefit or your spousal supplement prior to your FRA. As noted above, if you claimed both at your FRA, you would receive $1,200 (based on my assumptions about benefits).
In contrast, if you claimed both at age 62, you would receive about $855 in combined benefits. This is an overall penalty of 28.7% on your combined FRA benefit amounts. (The calculation of this overall penalty rate is not straightforward, since the two benefits have different penalty rates for early claiming.)
You raised the question about claiming your own benefits early and then claiming your spousal benefit at your FRA. You thought you would receive $1,200 a month once you reached your FRA.
Your reasoning here is incorrect. Once you claim your own benefits early (and incur an early claiming penalty), you will never reach your $1,200 target. Your early claiming penalty sticks with you. You can’t simply shed it when you qualify for your spousal supplement.
Here is an example, using the numbers from above: Suppose you claim your retirement benefits early, which reduces your retirement benefits from $800 to about $580 a month. Next, suppose your husband claims his benefits at age 70, so you start your spousal supplement at the same time. You will receive the full $400, since you have passed your FRA at that point.
So, your overall benefit amount is $980, not $1,200.
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You also can find all past answers from this series on the “Social Security Q&A” webpage.
I hold a doctorate in economics from the University of Wisconsin and taught economics at the University of Delaware for many years.
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.