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Ask Larry: Can My Wife Take Early Social Security Retirement Benefits And Later Switch To Spousal?

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Today’s Social Security column addresses questions about taking early reduced retirement benefits and then being able to take unreduced spousal benefits, how much survivor benefits taken at 65 would be reduced and a possible strategy for a higher earner who’s the younger spouse. Larry Kotlikoff is a Professor of Economics at Boston University and the founder and president of Economic Security Planning, Inc.

See more Ask Larry answers here.

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


Can My Wife Take Early Social Security Retirement Benefits And later Switch To Spousal?

Hi Larry, My wife worked until around 10 years ago. She has become a homemaker since then. We are both 49 years old. I have a full time job and a small pension.

Can my wife claim her Social Security retirement benefit at 62 and then switch to spousal benefits when I retire at 67? Thanks, Hector

Hi Hector, Your wife can’t start drawing her retirement benefit first and later switch to drawing spousal benefits.

Since your wife was born after 1/1/1954, she’ll be deemed to be applying for both her own Social Security retirement benefits and for spousal benefits when she applies for either benefit. If you haven’t yet started drawing your retirement benefits when your wife applies for her benefits, she’ll be obligated to start drawing any excess spousal benefits for which she qualifies as soon as you start drawing your retirement benefits. Best, Larry


What Percentage Of Survivor Benefits Would I Receive If I Start Drawing At Age 65?

Hi Larry, My ex passed away recently and I plan on retiring at age 65 instead of 66 1/2. What percentage of survivors benefit would I receive if I file for it then? Ellen

Hi Ellen, The exact percentage reduction for starting surviving divorced spousal benefits early varies depending on your year of birth. If your full retirement age (FRA) is 66 1/2 and if you start drawing those benefits 18 months early, the applicable reduction would amount to roughly 7%. Or in other words, your benefit rate would likely amount to roughly 93% of your unreduced rate.

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.

You may want to consider using my company’s software — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — to fully analyze your options so you can make informed decisions about your best strategy for maximizing your benefits and avoid unknowingly leaving money on the table. Social Security calculators provided by other companies or non-profits may provide proper suggestions if they were built with extreme care. Best, Larry


Is What We Have In Mind A Good Strategy?

Hi Larry, My wife is 63 and I’m 57. She hasn’t worked in a few years but has worked enough to collect retirement benefits. If she starts collecting now, and I wait till I’m 70, is this a good strategy. We want to use her benefit to buy property. If I die before her, would she then get my full benefit? Thanks, Ahmed

Hi Ahmed, The best strategy in your case likely depends largely on your and your wife’s comparative benefit rates, but assuming that your full benefit amount would be significantly higher than your wife’s, I wouldn’t argue with the strategy you have in mind.

Even if your wife starts drawing her benefits early, if you live at least until 70 and if you wait until then to start drawing your benefits, your wife could receive up to your full age 70 rate as a surviving spouse. She couldn’t get your full rate and her own benefit, though, just the higher of the two amounts.

However, if she starts drawing her benefits early your wife will be stuck with the applicable reduction for age for at least as long as both of you are living. That’s true even if she qualifies for an additional excess spousal benefit when you start drawing your benefits. Best, Larry


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