Dear Liz: Your recent article about Social Security claiming strategies may contain some wrong information. You told the woman who is 64 and had a former spouse who died that she could take her own benefit now and then switch to her survivor benefits when reaching 66. I wanted my wife to do something like this (but not the survivor part; I’m still alive), but was told by a few Social Security experts that this scenario is not possible because Social Security deems spouses to be filing for the spousal benefit and their own retirement at the same time. Once they’re deemed to have filed for both benefits, they get the larger of the two and can’t switch later. Please print a clarification.
Answer: Let’s clarify that you are still breathing and the ex-spouse in the original letter is not. The fact that you’re alive makes a world of difference, not just to you and your loved ones but to the Social Security benefit system.
When you’re alive, your spouse (or ex-spouse) may receive spousal benefits. When you’re dead, your spouse or ex-spouse may receive survivor benefits. Survivor benefits would essentially equal your benefit, while spousal benefits are capped at half of your benefit. Both spousal and survivor benefits are reduced if they’re started before the recipient’s full retirement age (currently 66).
There are other differences. Survivors can remarry at age 60 or later without losing their benefits. They also can switch from their own benefit to a survivor benefit, or vice versa, at any time.
Spousal benefits paid to a divorced person, by contrast, end if that person remarries at any age. Also, there’s the deeming issue you mention. When people apply for spousal benefits before their own full retirement age, they’re deemed or considered by Social Security to be applying for both spousal and their own retirement benefits. They’re given an amount equal to the larger of the two, and they lose the option of switching to their own benefits later, even if it would have been larger.
Those who wait until full retirement age had the option of filing a restricted application for spousal benefits only, which would allow them to switch later. Congress recently eliminated that option for those who haven’t turned 62 by the end of this year.