Q&A: Social Security and spousal benefits

Dear Liz: A friend of mine has told me that he thinks that I can apply for spousal benefits at my full retirement age and hold off getting my Social Security under my own work record until I am 70. Here is the scenario: My husband is 77 and has been collecting Social Security since he was 62. He continues to work. I will be 66 in November and I am still working. I plan to take Social Security at age 70. Can I apply for spousal benefits and receive an amount equal to half of what my husband receives from the age of 66 until I turn 70 and then apply under my own account at age 70 and receive my maximum benefit at that age? My friend feels strongly that this can be done, but I called Social Security and explained it clearly (or at least I thought I did) to them and they said that this could not be done. Then I went into the Social Security website and looked under “Spousal Benefits,” but the wording did not clearly say that this couldn’t be done.

Answer: What you’re describing is the “claim now, claim more later” strategy that can boost a couple’s lifetime Social Security by tens of thousands of dollars. It’s one of the approaches outlined in AARP’s excellent primer, “How to Maximize Your Social Security Benefits,” which you’ll find on its site, http://www.aarp.org, along with a calculator to help you understand how different claiming strategies could affect what you get.

These strategies capitalize on the fact that delaying the start of Social Security benefits results in substantially larger checks for life. In the case of two-earner couples, the “claim now, claim more later” strategy allows one spouse the option of getting checks (the spousal benefit) for a few years while allowing her own benefit to grow to its maximum.

As long as you wait until your own full retirement age to apply for spousal benefits, and your spouse is already receiving benefits, then you should be allowed to switch to your own benefit when it maxes out at age 70. If your spouse weren’t receiving benefits yet, but had reached his full retirement age, he could file for benefits and immediately suspend his application (“file and suspend”) so that you would be eligible for spousal benefits and his own benefit could continue to grow.

It’s not clear why you would have been told otherwise, since this isn’t exactly a secret strategy. But not all Social Security employees are equally informed. Sometimes calling back and asking your question again of another representative will result in a different or more complete answer.

When you file for benefits, make clear on the form that you are restricting your application to the spousal benefit only and aren’t collecting your own retirement benefit


  1. Hi –
    Local Social Security offices are often misinformed. Mine in North TX also (incorrectly) denied my claim and I asked to speak to a supervisor. Also denied. You MUST call the 1-800 number for Social Security. These people are very well informed and they will process your spousal benefit claim. They told me I could not do it on the Social Security website. Hope this helps!

    • Thanks for sharing your experience. Even the toll-free number can produce mixed results, so it sometimes can help to call more than once.

  2. Darlene March says

    I did my signup online. It was the best move I ever made.

  3. It is possible now to file a Restricted Application for spousal benefits only at age 66 or Full Retirement Age online. It is the same form as applying for benefits, but there is a question where you state you don’t wish to collect your own retirement benefit. There is also a place for remarks at the end of the application, where you could write in that you are filing a Restricted Application for spousal benefits only. Social Security followed up with a call about details of the application, and it was quickly approved.

  4. One fact I forgot to mention: though one spouse claimed early, the spouse filing the Restricted Application waited until their FRA of 66. Thus they received the spousal benefit equal to one-half of what the early claimant’s benefit would have been at FRA.

  5. Thank you for this comprehensive article here and in the Los Angeles Times, where I have read and learned from your work for years.

    When I was unable to find your suggested “How to Maximize Your Social Security” by searching the AARP website, I hunted manually; the best I found was a short question and answer at [MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com#sthash.x8NUoZ70.dpuf], which is much less thorough than your column, and a few similar short pieces dating back as far as 2009.

    Can you refer me to any more-detailed written discussion of this particular process, or do my wife and I have no other recourse than the voice at 1-800 Social Security?