Q&A: The benefits of delaying Social Security

Dear Liz: I retired and started collecting Social Security at 62. My husband is currently 68 and plans to retire next year. I called Social Security before I retired and they told me that I could collect Social Security at 62 and when my husband retired, I could collect my own Social Security or half of my husband’s, whichever was greater. Is this accurate? I should have done more research before taking my benefit as I’m not sure this is true.

Answer: It’s true. There’s a substantial penalty for starting early, and most people are stuck with a permanently reduced payment, but your situation is one of the potential exceptions.

You weren’t eligible for a spousal benefit at 62 because your husband hadn’t started his benefit. When your husband does start, the spousal benefit will be half of what he would have received had he applied at his full retirement age of 66. If you’re younger than your own full retirement age, the spousal benefit will be reduced to reflect the early start. If all those calculations result in an amount that’s more than what you collect, you’ll get the larger amount.

By waiting to start benefits, your husband gets delayed retirement credits equal to 8% for each year he has waited past his full retirement age. Spousal benefits don’t qualify to share those credits, but survivor benefits do. When one of you dies, the smaller of the two checks you receive as a couple goes away and the survivor receives the larger of the two benefits. The survivor’s check will be larger because your husband waited to apply.

This is why it’s so important for the larger earner in a married couple to delay filing for as long as possible. The higher earner’s benefit determines what the survivor will have to live on, often for years and sometimes for decades, after the first spouse dies.

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  1. I believe she could only file and suspend and then file for the spousal benefit if she was born before January 1, 1954.

    • Liz Weston says

      For you to get a spousal benefit, your partner must have started his or her own benefit. And once you start a spousal benefit, you typically can’t switch back to your own. In the past, one spouse could file for their benefit and then suspend it. “File and suspend” allowed the husband or wife to claim a spousal benefit, while the first spouse’s benefit could continue to grow. Some people used the restricted application as well; that allows someone to apply for a spousal benefit and then switch to their own benefit later. File and suspend has gone away, and, as you noted, restricted applications aren’t available to people born on or after Jan. 2, 1954. But a restricted application wouldn’t have worked for her even if she were the right age, since her husband hadn’t started benefits.

  2. I will starting claiming benefits this month @ full retirement age. Can my wife claim a spousal benefit when she turns 62 next year? Can she do this if she’s retired from LAUSD and receives a pension?

    • Liz Weston says

      People who get pensions from jobs that didn’t pay into Social Security are subject to the windfall elimination provision and the government pension offset, which can reduce or eliminate any Social Security benefit they would otherwise get. (The WEP affects the person’s own benefit and GPO affects any spousal or survivor benefit they might get from someone else’s work record.) In many cases, the pension payment is larger than anything she would get from Social Security, but that’s not always true.