“File and suspend” can boost Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: I am 63 and not nearly ready to collect Social Security. In fact I probably won’t be ready for quite a few years. My husband, who is 64, wants to collect on my Social Security as it is higher than his. Is there a way for him to do this that would not hurt me? I have called the Social Security office five times and have received five different answers. My husband went into the local office and they told him to have me apply for benefits and then after a short time send them a letter rescinding my application. That would allow him to collect on my work record and wouldn’t hurt my eventual benefit. I am not comfortable doing this. What do you suggest?

Answer: At your current age, you must start your own benefits for your husband to get a check based on your work record. The so-called spousal benefit is basically half your retirement benefit, and it will be somewhat reduced because your husband hasn’t achieved “full retirement age” (which is 66 for both of you). When he applies for spousal benefits, the Social Security Administration will compare that benefit with the one based on his own record and give him the larger of the two.

Starting benefits now, however, would lock you into a lower payment for the rest of your life. Your checks could be further reduced based on your earnings, if you continue to work.

If you can wait three years, you have another option called “file and suspend” that would allow your husband to collect a spousal benefit without reducing your eventual checks. Once you reach your full retirement age of 66, you can go to your local office to file for your benefit and then immediately suspend your application. That would allow your husband to collect a spousal benefit while your own uncollected benefit could continue to grow.

Another advantage for your hubby if you wait: He will have achieved his full retirement age when he starts receiving spousal benefits, so he would be allowed to switch to his own benefit later, if it’s larger. If he starts receiving spousal benefits before his full retirement age, he loses the option to switch.

You can learn more about the file-and-suspend strategy on the Social Security site at www.ssa.gov/retire2/yourspouse.htm. You may want to bring a printout of that page with you to the Social Security office. File and suspend is not an obscure strategy, but it doesn’t appear that your local office is quite aware of all the details.

Delay collecting Social Security for a bigger benefit

Dear Liz: My spouse started collecting Social Security in 2002 at age 63. I am 59, and not working, so my future benefits are unlikely to increase very much, even if I wait until age 70. If he dies before I do, will I get same amount he would be collecting at that time? If I collect Social Security at 62, would Social Security combine our records to calculate my benefit? In other words, should I try to wait or just start collecting at 62?

Answer: Your presumption that your benefit wouldn’t increase much by waiting is incorrect. Even if you aren’t working now, your benefit amount will grow the longer you can wait to apply. That’s true whether you ultimately get benefits based on your own work record or your husband’s.

When you apply, the Social Security Administration will compare your earned benefit with your spousal benefit and give you the larger of the two. Your spousal benefit starts at half of what your husband’s benefit would have been at full retirement age. That amount is reduced significantly if you apply for benefits before your own full retirement age (which is 66 for you, although it rises to 67 for anyone born after 1959).

Also, if you apply for spousal benefits before your full retirement age, you wouldn’t have the option of switching to your own benefit later, even if your benefit grows to a larger amount than what you’re receiving based on your husband’s record.

When your husband dies, you can switch to survivor’s benefits, which equal what he was receiving. Since he started benefits early, however, his checks have been permanently reduced to reflect that early retirement. In other words, if he had waited longer to retire, you would have been entitled to a larger survivor’s benefit.

The Social Security system is designed to reward people for delaying retirement, which is why it often makes sense to do so.

How to get an ex’s Social Security information

Dear Liz: I am 63 and divorced after being married over 10 years. I was told by our local Social Security office that I need my ex’s Social Security number in order to find out whether spousal benefits based on his record would be more than benefits based on my own record. I have his full name and date of birth, but I would rather not ask him for his Social Security number. If I do really need that, do you have any suggestions? Would some other type of information suffice?

Answer: The information you received from your local Social Security office is incorrect. You do not need your ex’s Social Security number to apply for spousal benefits, said Jonathan Peterson, AARP executive communications director and author of “Social Security for Dummies.” The more identifying information you can provide, the better, but the Social Security Administration can track down his records without it.

That said, you might want to dig around in your old files to see whether you can find a joint tax return, which will certainly have his number, or an old health insurance card, which might.

Spousal benefits are available to divorced people as long as they were married at least 10 years, are 62 or older and are currently not married.

How spousal benefits work

Dear Liz: My wife has never worked outside the home and therefore has no Social Security credits. My understanding is that as a nonworking spouse, she is entitled to 50% of my benefit, assuming she is 66 years old and I have started receiving benefits. Is that correct?

Answer: You’ve got the right general idea. But spousal benefits are available to working spouses as well, your wife has the right to start benefits earlier (at a discounted rate) and you don’t have to actually receive checks for her to get this benefit.

Your wife is eligible for a spousal benefit based on your “primary insurance amount.” That’s the amount you would receive at your normal retirement age, no matter whether you’ve actually attained that age or started benefits. Normal retirement age is currently 66, but it will rise to 67 for people born after 1959. If she waits until her own full retirement age to start benefits, then she can qualify for a benefit equal to half your primary insurance amount. If she starts earlier, the benefit is permanently reduced.

If your wife had worked and qualified for her own retirement benefit, the Social Security Administration would give her whichever benefit paid the most — her own, or a portion of yours.

Because you’re still married, your wife wouldn’t be able to start spousal benefits until you’ve claimed your own benefit. However, if you’ve reached your full retirement age, you have the option to “file and suspend.” That means you’d file for benefits but immediately suspend your claim. That way, your benefit could continue to grow while she could begin receiving her payments.

If you were divorced but had been married at least 10 years, she could begin her benefits without waiting for you to file for your own. That exception was put into place so people wouldn’t have to seek their exes’ cooperation to get benefits.