Q&A: Social Security spousal benefits

Dear Liz: I’m confused by Social Security benefits for divorced spouses, which you’ve written about recently. I was told that because I remarried (after age 60), I have to wait until my ex-husband died before receiving a part of his benefits. Is this still true for remarried ex-spouses? My ex does collect Social Security and I collect my small benefit (both of us started at full retirement age).

Answer: Yes. Divorced spousal benefits would be available only if you are currently unmarried. Survivor benefits, on the other hand, could still be available if you remarried at 60 or older.

Spousal and divorced spousal benefits can be up to 50% of the worker’s benefit, while survivor and divorced survivor benefits can be up to 100%.

Q&A: Divorced spousal benefits

Dear Liz: I never expected to be where I am financially. I work as an independent piano teacher and my present earnings are just enough to get by (which isn’t saying much in Southern California). I was married for 18 years and am now single, with no plans to remarry.

After I turn 66 next year, I intend to apply for Social Security benefits as a divorced spouse because my personal Social Security benefits would amount to just $875 a month and my ex is doing quite well (with earnings somewhere in the six-figure range). I anticipate the divorced spousal benefit will be greater than my own.

But I have a lot of questions. Will waiting until my former husband is 66 or 70 (he is 64) do anything to maximize my benefits? Will my Social Security be taxable? How much am I allowed to continue earning if I also receive Social Security?

Answer: Spousal and divorced spousal benefits can help lower earners get larger Social Security checks. Instead of just receiving their own retirement benefit, they can receive up to half of the higher earners’ benefits. But divorced spousal benefits are different in some important ways from the spousal benefits available to married people.

If you were still married, your benefit would be based on what your husband was actually getting. If he started benefits early, that would reduce the spousal benefit you could get. You also couldn’t get a spousal benefit unless he was already receiving his own.

Divorced spousal benefits are available if your marriage lasted at least 10 years and you aren’t currently married. If you meet those qualifications, you can apply for divorced spousal benefits as long as both you and your ex are at least 62 — he doesn’t need to have started his own benefit. Your divorced spousal benefit will be based on his “primary benefit amount,” or the benefit that would be available to him at his full retirement age (which is 66 years and two months, if he was born in 1955). It doesn’t matter if he starts early or late; that doesn’t affect what you as his ex would receive.

Spousal and divorced spousal benefits don’t receive delayed retirement credits, so there’s no advantage for you to delay beyond your own full retirement age (which is 66, if you were born in 1954) to start. Your benefit would have been reduced if you’d started early, though, so you were smart to wait.

Also, waiting until your full retirement age means you won’t be subjected to the earnings test that otherwise would reduce your checks by $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain amount ($17,640 in 2019).

Q&A: Sorting out the ex’s benefits

Dear Liz: I am 68 and plan to delay starting Social Security until I’m 70. I was married for 15 years prior to an amicable divorce 15 years ago. My ex just turned 60 and remains unmarried but may possibly marry at some future time. Does she qualify for survivor benefits? If so, what can I do to help ensure that she can efficiently apply for that benefit? We have already reviewed her option to assume my benefit upon my demise, but our benefits are virtually at identical levels and so that option does not seem applicable.

Answer: You seem to have confused divorced survivor benefits with divorced spousal benefits. She may well be eligible for both, but the only way you can help her get survivor benefits is to die. It’s great that you two are still friends, but that may be taking friendship a little too far.

Your ex is too young to claim a divorced spousal benefit, which isn’t available until she turns 62. She wouldn’t be able to get the full amount, which is 50% of your benefit at your full retirement age, until she reaches her own full retirement age. If she was born in 1959, then her full retirement age is 66 years and 10 months.

Furthermore, she would get a divorced spousal benefit only if that’s larger than her own benefit. If your benefits are “virtually identical,” that’s not likely to be the case.

If you should keel over tomorrow, though, she would be eligible to receive a divorced survivor benefit and put off receiving her own. Survivor benefits are available starting at age 60, or age 50 if the survivor is disabled, or at any age if the survivor cares for the dead person’s child who is under 16. Your ex also could marry at 60 or older without losing her survivor benefit. People who receive divorced spousal benefits, on the other hand, lose that benefit if they remarry.

Q&A: Timing those spouse benefits

Dear Liz: My husband and I are retired. He is 67 and I’m 65. We have been delaying Social Security as we are financially able to wait until he turns 70 to begin benefits. We both turned 62 before January 2, 2016, and are wondering how the “restricted application” rule applies to us. My husband was the primary worker and will have a payout at 70 that is more than twice what I will be paid, so I would be the one taking the spousal benefit. Would you recommend we continue to wait until he is 70 to start benefits, or does the rule make it smarter for us to begin sooner?

Answer: Typically when someone applies for Social Security, she is “deemed” to be applying both for her own benefit and for any spousal benefit that might be available. Restricted applications allowed someone to apply only for a spousal benefit, allowing her own benefit to grow, since delaying the start of benefits increases the amount by about 7% to 8% each year. She could switch to her own benefit when it maxed out at age 70.

Congress changed the rules to eliminate restricted applications for people who turn 62 on or after Jan. 2, 2016. Although a restricted application is still available to you, your husband must be receiving benefits before your spousal benefits can begin. (There used to be something called “file and suspend,” that would allow your husband to trigger spousal benefits without receiving his own, but that has been eliminated. He would have had to reach his full retirement age and requested the suspension before April 30, 2016.)

One other detail that’s important: While your husband’s benefit will continue to grow if he doesn’t start until age 70, the spousal benefit will not. The maximum spousal benefit is 50% of your husband’s benefit at his full retirement age, which was 66. The spousal benefit is further reduced if you should start it before your own full retirement age (which is also 66).

In most cases, it’s best for the higher wage-earner to wait as long as possible to begin, which would mean you would start spousal benefits in three years when your husband turns 70. Remember that it’s the larger check one of you will have to live on after the other one dies; you don’t continue to receive two checks, so it’s usually worth trying to max out the larger one. If you file a restricted application for spousal benefits only, you’d have the option of switching to your own benefit at 70 if it’s larger. You may want to use the Social Security claiming calculator at AARP’s site to evaluate your options.

Q&A: Timing spousal benefits

Dear Liz: My wife, who is 59, lost her job and has been unable to find a new one. Can she file for Social Security spousal benefits at 62? I plan to continue working.

Answer: For her to receive spousal benefits, you need to be receiving your own benefits. If you’re not yet 62, the youngest age at which you can claim retirement benefits, then her only option would be to file for her own benefit.

That may be the right course in any case. If you’re the bigger earner, it often makes sense for you to put off filing as long as possible to maximize not just your own check but the survivor’s benefit that one of you will have to live on once the other dies.

You can start your research into the best claiming strategy by using free calculators, such as AARP’s Social Security calculator or Open Social Security. If your situation is at all complicated — you have a minor child or a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security — then consider paying about $40 to use a more sophisticated calculator, such as Maximize My Social Security, or consulting with a fee-only financial planner.

Q&A: Waiting your way to better retirement benefits

Dear Liz: You recently wrote, “When you apply for Social Security now, you’re ‘deemed’ (considered by the Social Security Administration) to be applying for both your own benefit and any available spousal benefit. If a spousal benefit is larger, you’ll get that, and you can’t switch back to your own later.”

I turn 62 in August and recently visited the Social Security Administration to apply for benefits. I worked for 20 years and earned a benefit of $1,400 a month if I waited to apply at 66. Since I was applying at the earlier age of 62, my benefit is lowered to about $1,000 a month. Half of my husband’s benefit is $1,300 a month but I was told my only choices are to take $1,000 at the earlier age of 62 or wait another four years and take my full benefit at $1,400.

What makes me incensed is that had I not worked at all, I would be eligible to take the higher amount of $1,300 spousal benefit at 62. This makes no sense!

Answer: No, it doesn’t, and it may be because you’re misunderstanding what you were told.

Your spousal benefit is half of your husband’s benefit only if you wait until your own full retirement age, 66, to take it. Social Security benefits are reduced if you start early.

If his benefit is currently $2,600, your spousal benefit now would be about 35% of that, or $904. Since your own benefit reduced for an early start is $1,000, you would get the larger of the two checks, or $1,000. If you wait until your full retirement age, you’ll get a substantially larger check — and it will still be bigger than your spousal benefit.

Q&A: Social Security spousal benefits

Dear Liz: In a recent article, you mentioned spousal benefits. If someone started her own Social Security benefit at 62, is there no way of drawing a spousal benefit at a later date?

Answer: When you apply for Social Security now, you’re “deemed” (considered by the Social Security Administration) to be applying for both your own benefit and any available spousal benefit. If a spousal benefit is larger, you’ll get that, and you can’t switch back to your own benefit later.

You may be able to switch from your own benefit to a spousal benefit, however. Let’s say that when you applied at 62, your spouse had not yet applied for his or her own benefit. When he or she does apply, you’ll be automatically switched to a spousal benefit if it’s larger than your own.

Before Congress changed the rules, it was possible for one spouse to “file and suspend” — file and immediately suspend an application for retirement benefits, which was enough to allow a spouse to collect a spousal benefit. Today, a spousal benefit is typically only available if the primary earner has started his or her own retirement benefits.

Q&A: When a Social Security spousal benefit goof is suspected

Dear Liz: A family member recently lost her spouse. His monthly Social Security check was $1,800 and hers is $750. I have two questions.

First, is my understanding correct that she is able to begin collecting his monthly amount instead of her own?

Second, instead of collecting Social Security based on her earnings history, was she eligible instead to have collected 50% of her husband’s monthly benefit? If so, she was entitled to $150 more than she’s been collecting. If this is accurate, is there any recourse for collecting the additional benefit from Social Security?

Answer: To answer your first question, yes, your relative will now receive a survivor’s benefit equal to what her husband was receiving. She will no longer receive her own benefit.

The answer to your second question is a bit more complicated. Your relative may have started benefits before her own full retirement age, which used to be 65 and is now 66. When people start benefits early, they receive a permanently reduced amount whether they’re receiving their own retirement benefit or a benefit based on a spouse’s earnings. It’s possible that her reduced retirement benefit was more than her reduced spousal benefit.

Another possibility is that she started benefits before her husband. To get spousal benefits, the primary earner typically needs to be receiving his or her own benefit. (There used to be a way around this, called “file and suspend,” that allowed the primary earner to file for benefits and then suspend the application. That no longer exists.)

If your relative started benefits before her husband, she may have been able to get a bump in her check once he applied, assuming her spousal benefit was worth more than her own retirement benefit. That bump in benefits is now automatic, but if she turned 62 before 2016, she would have had to apply to get the increase, says Mary Beth Franklin, a Social Security expert who writes for Investment News.

She wouldn’t be eligible to get all the missed benefits back at this point, but she could get up to six months’ worth.

Q&A: Starting Social Security benefits early will cost you

Dear Liz: I started getting Social Security at age 62. I would have only gotten $327 a month based on my work history, but they gave me $666 based on my husband’s work history. He gets $1,966 but your article said I should get half. Should I be receiving more?

Answer: Probably not.

Your spousal benefit would have been half of your husband’s “primary benefit amount” only if you’d waited until your own full retirement age to apply. Because you started several years early at 62, your check was reduced by 30%.

His primary benefit amount is what he would have received if he started benefits at his own full retirement age. Full retirement age is currently 66 and will rise to 67 for people born in 1960 and later.

Q&A: Divorce and Social Security spousal benefits

Dear Liz: My ex-wife and I were married for 12 years. She is 55. I am 64 and collecting Social Security. At what age can she apply for spousal benefits?

Answer: If she doesn’t remarry, she can apply for spousal benefits as early as age 62. If she applies early, though, she would lose the option to switch to her own benefit later if it’s larger.

To preserve that option, she would need to wait until her own full retirement age, which is 67 for those born in 1960 and later.

Dear Liz: My husband is 68 and I am 59. My husband is deferring his Social Security to age 70 to get the largest amount. If he predeceases me, at what age would I be eligible for 100% of my husband’s current Social Security benefit? Would I have to wait to age 66 for that benefit?

Answer: If your husband should die, you could apply for survivor’s benefits as early as age 60 (or 50 if you are disabled). Your benefit would be reduced to reflect the early start. To get 100% of your husband’s benefit, you typically would have to wait until your own full retirement age. If you were born in 1956, that would be 66 and four months.

There’s a wrinkle here, though. By waiting to start his benefit, your husband is earning what are known as delayed retirement credits that increase his benefit by 8% annually (or two-thirds of 1% each month). Your survivor’s benefit would be based on the benefit he’s earned, including the delayed retirement credits, even if he should die before age 70. So at least some of the effect of your early start would be offset by the fact that he delayed benefits.

If your husband had started benefits early, by contrast, your survivor’s benefit would have been based on that permanently reduced amount. By waiting, your husband is ensuring that you will get the largest survivor benefit possible while increasing the odds that you as a couple will get the most out of Social Security.