By Rusty Gloor, National Social Security Advisor at the AMAC Foundation, the non-profit arm of the Association of Mature American Citizens
Dear Rusty: I am 63 and my wife is exactly 4 ½ years younger than me to the day. I plan to file for Social Security when I turn 70. My earnings history is considerably higher than my wife’s. I talked with a person at the local Social Security office, and she suggested that my wife file at 62 based on her own record then convert to her spousal benefit when I file at age 70. However, from what I can tell, if she files before her FRA of 67, not only will she get less based on her own record, but she will also receive less for her spousal benefit, as well as her survivor benefit if I die before her (which is statistically likely). Is my analysis correct? Signed: Planning Ahead
Dear Planning: Your analysis is correct regarding your wife’s spousal benefit while you are both living, but incorrect regarding her survivor benefit if you die first. Here’s why:
If your wife takes her personal Social Security (SS) retirement benefit at age 62, she’ll get 70% of what she would get if she waited until her FRA of 67 to claim. That amount is permanent (except for COLA), and it is what her “spousal boost” will be added to when she takes her spouse benefit (when you claim). In the scenario you mention, in addition to your wife’s own benefit being reduced by 30% for claiming at 62, since she will not yet have reached her FRA of 67 when she takes her spouse benefit from you her “spousal boost” will be reduced as well. So, claiming at 62 not only reduces her personal benefit it also means she’ll get less than 50% of your FRA benefit amount when you claim (FRA amounts are used to compute spouse benefits, regardless of the age benefits are claimed). All of which means her spousal benefit will be considerably less.
That isn’t necessarily an unacceptable strategy unless she is working, in which case she’ll be subject to an earnings limit which will either reduce how much Social Security will pay her while she’s working or, if her earnings are high enough, eliminate her eligibility for any benefit until she stops working. The earnings limit changes yearly but for 2022 it will be $19,560 and if that is exceeded, they will take away benefits equal to $1 for every $2 she is over the limit. There is no longer an earnings limit when your wife reaches her FRA so your wife’s plans for working should be factored into her decision on when to claim.
In any case, you should look at your overall benefit opportunity as a couple to see when your wife should claim, and life expectancy should always be factored into your thinking. If your wife expects to live a long life (and does), waiting until her FRA to claim her own SS will maximize her monthly benefit (including her spouse benefit) for the rest of her life. If her life expectancy is less optimistic, claiming earlier has much merit. Just for reference, a woman your wife’s age, statistically, will live to an average age of 87.
Regardless of when your wife claims her own benefit or her spousal benefit while you are both living, her benefit as your widow will not be affected. What affects her survivor benefit is her age when she claims it. If she has reached her full retirement age when she claims her widow’s benefit, she’ll get 100% of the benefit you were receiving when you died instead of the smaller benefit she was previously getting. If she hasn’t yet reached her FRA when she claims her widow’s benefit, then it will be actuarially reduced by a fraction of a percent for each month earlier than her FRA she claims it. Be aware too that even if your wife hasn’t reached her FRA when you die, she can choose to delay claiming her survivor benefit until it reaches maximum at her FRA.
This article is intended for information purposes only and does not represent legal or financial guidance. It presents the opinions and interpretations of the AMAC Foundation’s staff, trained and accredited by the National Social Security Association (NSSA). NSSA and the AMAC Foundation and its staff are not affiliated with or endorsed by the Social Security Administration or any other governmental entity. To submit a question, visit our website (amacfoundation.org/programs/social-security-advisory) or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.