Dear Liz: You recently wrote that people who start Social Security benefits before their full retirement age are locked in and can’t switch to a higher benefit later. You are indeed locked in to that reduced benefit, but by switching to a spousal benefit at age 66, for example, it is possible to receive a higher benefit. Getting correct information about this is tough. I’m a certified financial planner and I received three different answers from Social Security personnel. Search the FAQ on the ssa.gov site for “receiving full and reduced benefits.”
Answer: Thanks for that important clarification. The original letter referenced a technique that some married couples can use to significantly boost their overall benefit. The technique allows people to start spousal benefits — Social Security payments based on the work record of a husband or wife — while letting their own benefit grow, to be claimed later. But the option of switching from the spousal benefit to your own benefit is available only if you start spousal benefits at your own full retirement age (which is currently 66). People who start spousal benefits before full retirement age can’t later switch to their own benefit.
As you note, however, people who start with their own benefit may be able to switch to a spousal benefit later. Both their own benefit and their spousal benefit would be reduced because of the early start. Here’s how Social Security explains it:
“When you apply for reduced retirement benefits, we will check to see if you are eligible for both your own retirement benefits and for benefits as a spouse. If you are eligible for both, we always pay your own benefits first. If you are due additional benefits, you will get a combination of benefits equaling the higher spouse’s benefit. If you are not eligible for both because your spouse is not yet entitled, but you are due a higher amount when he or she starts receiving Social Security benefits, then the higher spouse’s benefit is payable to you when your spouse applies for retirement benefits. Remember, you cannot receive spouse’s benefits until your spouse files for retirement.”
Social Security claiming strategies can be complicated. The AARP has an excellent guide at http://bit.ly/153Quvh.