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Ask Larry: Can You Still Get Social Security Spousal Benefits After Taking Retirement Benefits?

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Today’s column addresses questions about whether it’s still possible to take spousal benefits after first receiving retirement benefits, what benefits may be available for survivors of a deceased worker and whether public pensions affect divorced spousal benefits. Larry Kotlikoff is a Professor of Economics at Boston University and the founder and president of Economic Security Planning, Inc, which markets Maximize My Social Security and MaxiFi Planner.

See more Ask Larry answers here.

Have Social Security questions of your own you’d like answered? Ask Larry about Social Security here.

Can You Still Get Social Security Spousal Benefits After Taking Retirement Benefits?

Hi Larry, My wife and I were both born in 1955. She in February myself in November. We have both continued to work full-time jobs and were not planning on retiring until 2025 when we turn 70. I make six times the amount my wife does for our local school district and so I believe her spousal benefit should be larger than her retirement benefit.

Originally we were going to file and suspend but that strategy is no longer open to us. Lately I have been thinking about her taking her retirement benefit this year and switching to her spousal benefit in 2025 when I take my retirement benefit. I was wondering what you thought and is it still possible for a person to switch to their spouses benefit later on after receiving their retirement benefit first. Thanks, Steve

Hi Steve, It’s not possible to actually “switch” to drawing just a spousal benefit after first drawing Social Security retirement benefits. What your wife could do though, is file for her retirement benefits at her full retirement age (FRA) and then file for an additional, or excess, spousal benefit when you file for your retirement benefits.

The net result would be essentially the same as switching to a spousal benefit, since her combined benefit rate would then add up to half of your primary insurance amount (PIA). A person’s PIA is equal to their Social Security retirement benefit rate if they start drawing their benefits at full retirement age (FRA).

Note that her spousal benefit would be 50% of your PIA, not 50% of your increased retirement benefit taken after your FRA.

If your wife’s benefit rate if she waited until age 70 to start drawing her benefits would still be less than 50% of your PIA, then it would almost certainly be advantageous for her to start drawing her own benefits no later than at her FRA. She could file for her own benefits prior to FRA, but if she does so, her benefit rate will be reduced for age and that age reduction would continue for as long as both of you are living.

In other words, if she files for a reduced benefit on her own record and later qualifies for an excess spousal benefit, her combined benefit rate would be less than 50% of your PIA.

You and your wife may want to consider using my company’s software — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — to fully analyze the options available to you and determine your best strategy for maximizing your benefits. Social Security calculators provided by other companies or non-profits may provide proper suggestions if they were built with extreme care. Best, Larry

Where Does My Husband’s Money That Social Security Took Out For All These Years Go?

Hi Larry, I recently lost my husband to covid. He was 56. I called Social Security and they said when I reach 60, I can start collecting a reduced widow’s benefit. He also had a life insurance policy.

That makes me go over the $18,000 a year limit they gave me. Where does my husband’s money go that they took out for all these years? Will I not be entitled to any of it? Does it change at full retirement age? And I can make over that amount? Can I have my kids receive it at what his full retirement age was? Thanks, Kim

Hi Kim, I’m sorry for your loss.

First off, nothing you receive from a life insurance policy would prevent you from qualifying for Social Security widow’s benefits. However, you must be at least 60, or at least 50 and disabled, in order to be able to collect widow’s benefits.

Also, until you reach full retirement age (FRA) there is a limit on how much you can earn from working and still be able to receive widow’s benefits. Once you reach FRA though, you can potentially draw widow’s benefits no matter how much you work and earn.

If you don’t currently qualify for monthly widow’s benefits, you can still likely claim a $255 one-time death benefit based on your husband’s Social Security covered earnings. You’ll need to file an application to claim that payment by calling Social Security if you haven’t already done so.

Your children could potentially qualify for Social Security survivor benefits if they’re under 18, or 18 to 19 and still in high school, or at any age if they became disabled prior to 22. It sounds like you, at least, will likely qualify for widow’s benefits at some point in time, but there is no guarantee that paying Social Security taxes will ever translate into receiving benefits.

The money collected from Social Security taxes is placed in a general trust fund, not an individual retirement account, and the trust fund is what is used to pay benefits to people who qualify for benefits. Social Security taxes paid by a deceased person can’t be distributed to their heirs except in the form of survivor benefits.

Your best filing strategy could be either filing for reduced widow’s benefits early and then switching to your own record at 70, or filing for reduced retirement benefits on your own record early and then filing for unreduced widow’s benefits at full retirement age (FRA).

Normally, you would want to start out drawing the lower benefit first and then switch to the higher record when it reaches its highest potential rate. Best, Larry

Will My Benefits Be Reduced Because My Ex-Husband Worked For The Federal Government?

Hi Larry, I was marred 38 years my ex worked 17 for the federal government. I am going to apply for my own Social Security retirement benefit and I am concerned that it might be reduced because of his pension. He gets both Social Security and federal pension. Would it increase again after he dies and the pension ends? Thanks, Mary

Hi Mary, Receiving a pension other than Social Security can only affect a person’s Social Security benefits if the pension is based on that person’s own work and earnings that were exempt from Social Security taxes. So your Social Security benefits won’t be reduced simply because your ex-husband receives a federal pension.

Assuming that you were born after 1/1/1954, you won’t be eligible for divorced spousal benefits while your ex is still living unless his primary insurance amount (PIA) is more than twice as much as your PIA. A person’s PIA is equal to their Social Security retirement benefit rate if they start drawing their benefits at full retirement age (FRA).

If your ex-husband dies before you and assuming that you’re drawing your own retirement benefits when he dies, you could potentially qualify for survivor benefits if your ex’s Social Security benefit rate is higher than your own rate. If the Social Security benefit amount that your ex is receiving is reduced because he’s receiving a pension based on work that was exempt from Social Security taxes, then that reduction would be removed when calculating the amount of your potential survivor benefit.

When you apply for Social Security benefits, whether it’s your own retirement benefits or divorced spousal or survivor benefits, you won’t need to furnish any information to Social Security about your ex-husband’s work history or any pensions that he may be receiving. Social Security should already have the necessary information in their records. Best, Larry

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