Early Social Security start precludes switching later

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you noted that someone who chooses to obtain Social Security at age 62 on her own account is unable to switch to her spouse’s account at age 66. Is this true for a spouse who is older than the husband? My husband is one year younger than me. If I chose to start Social Security at age 62 on my own benefits, would I be able to switch to his when he retires at age 66 (and I would be age 67 at the time)?

Answer: You’ve actually got it a bit backward. Someone who waits until her full retirement age to apply for Social Security has the choice of starting with a spousal benefit (typically half of what the spouse gets) and then switching to her own benefit later, usually at age 70 when it’s reached its maximum level.

This is often a recommended strategy with two high earners, since the one receiving spousal benefits can “graduate” to her own, higher benefit later. If the spouse receiving spousal benefits was a lower earner, her benefit might not be as big as her spousal benefit at age 70, so there would be no reason to switch.

If you start spousal benefits before your own full retirement age, however, you’re locked in. You can’t let your own benefit grow and switch to it later.

For a program meant to benefit ordinary Americans, Social Security can be mind-numbingly complex. Fortunately, you can find good calculators at the AARP and T. Rowe Price websites to help you sort through your options.


  1. Hi Liz, I submitted this question seperately, but feel like you missed the answer to this person, she’s asking what I asked: I called the SSA and this is what they told me: To be more specific on an option of when to file for married couples where the husband made 2x what the wife made. The numbers I’m using are not exact, but close. I plan to file at age 62 for $800/month (if I waited til age 66, my benefit would be $1100/month). My husband will wait until age 66 to file for $2300/month. Once he files, I will be age 67 and will file for spousal benefits of half his, or $1150/month. So our total at that point would be $3450/month. Does this match what you know as well? Thanks! – See more at: http://asklizweston.com/early-social-security-start-precludes-switching-later/#comment-15755

    • lizweston says

      When you start benefits early, it reduces not just your current benefit but any future benefit you receive. So your future spousal benefit would not be half of your husband’s but would be discounted from that amount. (I’m not sure of the exact amount of discounting but it wouldn’t be insignificant.)

      If your goal is to maximize the total benefits you receive and leave yourself in the best position should your husband die first, you have a few options—all of which involve you waiting until your own full retirement age to file. (Full retirement age is between 66 and 67, depending on when you were born.)

      The strategy that would likely give you the most overall would be for you to claim spousal benefits at your own full retirement age and for your husband to put off his benefit until he’s 70. That would give you more total benefits while he’s alive and leave you with the biggest survivor benefit after he dies.

      If that’s too long to wait, you could both claim benefits on your own records as you each reached full retirement age.

      Another strategy would have you claiming spousal benefits first and then switching your own benefit to max out at 70 (the “claim now, claim more later” strategy I was writing about that prompted this reader’s question). Often this is the best way for a married couple with high earnings to maximize the total benefits they receive, but it’s unclear if that would be the outcome in your case.

      There are two calculators that may help you: the first is T. Rowe Price’s free version at http://www.troweprice.com/socialsecurity and the other is http://www.maximizemysocialsecurity.com that costs $40 but that’s much more customizable.