Q&A: More about spousal benefits

Dear Liz: You recently wrote that a wife could apply for Social Security at 62 and then switch later to her spousal benefit. I do not believe this is accurate. Once the wife starts drawing, she is committed.

Answer: Typically, that’s true. When someone applies for Social Security, their retirement benefit is compared with their potential spousal benefit and they would get the larger of the two amounts. If the spousal benefit is larger, they would technically get their own benefit plus a supplemental amount.

Because they had already started getting their own benefit either way, they couldn’t switch later — there’s nothing else to switch to. (In the past, someone could start a spousal benefit and leave their own benefit to grow, but that’s no longer an option.)

For a spousal benefit to be available, however, the husband must have already started his retirement benefit. In this case, he would not have done so. That means the only benefit the wife could qualify for when she applies is her own. Once he applies at age 70, a spousal benefit would be triggered. If that amount is larger than what she was getting, she would get a supplement on top of her retirement benefit, as described above.

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