Spousal Benefits: What You Can and Cannot Do

By Tom Margenau

April 21, 2021 7 min read

Before I even start, I'm going to address the gender issue. This column is about benefits available to spouses. However, I don't want to spend the whole column trying to be gender-neutral and using awkward combined pronouns like "he/she" or "him/her," or jumbled phrases like "benefits for husbands and/or wives." Because statistics show that 90% of the people who get spousal benefits are women, I'm going to keep things simple and address this column to women. Or more specifically, to wives who are wondering what benefits they might be due on a husband's Social Security record.

And two more caveats before I go on. In this column, I will be talking about benefits for wives — not widows. Different rules apply to widows benefits. They have been explained in past columns and will be explained in future columns. But today I will be addressing women whose husbands are still alive and kicking.

And speaking of husbands, that's the other caveat. If you are a husband who happens to fall into that 10% cohort of men who get a smaller Social Security retirement benefit than their wives, then you possibly could be due husbands benefits on your wife's Social Security record. So, as you read this column, simply reverse the gender pronouns.

OK, let's start out with this basic tenet: Assuming you are a woman who has worked and earned your own Social Security benefit, you will ALWAYS be paid that benefit first. In other words, you must always file for your own Social Security retirement benefits before you can even consider filing for benefits as a wife on your husband's Social Security account.

Almost every single day, I get emails from women asking me this: "Can I file for benefits on my husband's record now and then later switch to higher benefits on my own record?" The answer is NO! Remember that basic rule I just told you about. You must always file for your own benefits first.

Well, there is one little exception. It has to do with the "restricted application" loophole discussed about 100 times in past columns. If you turned 66 before Jan. 2, 2020, and haven't yet filed for any Social Security benefits, you can file for wives benefits on your husband's record and then, at a later age, switch to higher benefits on your own retirement benefit.

But don't let that little exception confuse you. Again, it only applies to that very tiny group of readers who were 66 before Jan. 2, 2020, and haven't signed up for Social Security yet. All of the rest of you must live by that basic tenet I explained above. I can't repeat it often enough: You will ALWAYS file for your own Social Security benefits first.

Let's give an example. Becky is turning 62 and wants to file for Social Security. Her full retirement benefit is $800 per month, meaning her age-62 rate will be $600. She has a husband, Tom, who is 68. He started his benefits when he was 62. He is getting $1,800 per month. Tom's full retirement benefit rate is $2,400. So, what is Becky due from Social Security?

Again, we start out with that basic rule. She must be paid her own benefit first. So, she will start out getting $600 in reduced retirement benefits. Then they will look to Tom's record to see what extra spousal benefits she might be due. Becky heard that a wife gets half of her husband's Social Security. But that is only true IF she waits until her full retirement age to file. Because she is signing up for Social Security at 62, her spousal benefits are reduced just as her retirement benefit was reduced. Instead of getting 50%, her spousal rate will be closer to 30%. That's the bad news. But the good news is her spousal rate is based on Tom's full retirement benefit, not the reduced rate he is getting. So she doesn't get 30% of his $1,800 benefit. She gets 30% of his $2,400 rate. And that comes out to $720.

Some of you might think that means Becky will get $720 in wives benefits in addition to her own retirement benefit of $600. That's not the way it works. Here is another basic Social Security tenet you must understand: When you are due benefits on two Social Security records, your combined benefits can't exceed the higher of the two rates.

So, Becky will get $600 from her own Social Security account, and she will get $120 in wives benefits on Tom's record to take her up to the $720 spousal rate she is due.

Some of you might also wonder if Becky could take her own retirement benefits now and wait until she is full retirement age to file for benefits on Tom's record. Nope, she can't do that. Why? Because of yet another basic Social Security tenet that says this: When you file for one Social Security benefit, you must file for any other benefits you might be due at the same time.

So, I just spent the first two-thirds of this column explaining that you cannot file for spousal benefits on your husband's record and then later switch to your own retirement benefits. And I also just said that if your husband is already getting Social Security when you retire, you must file for any spousal benefits you are due on his record at the same time.

But what happens if, at the time you sign up for Social Security, your husband hasn't yet filed for his benefits? Can you take benefits and your own record now and later file for spousal benefits on his record? Yes, you can. In fact, that is a very common scenario. Let's follow another example.

Ann is just turning 62 and plans to file for benefits now. Her full retirement rate is $1,000 per month. At 62, she will get $750. Her husband, Bill, is 66. But he plans to wait until 70 to file for his Social Security. His full retirement rate is $2,800. At 70, he will get $3,696.

Ann wonders if she can file for spousal benefits now. The answer is no. She must wait until Bill files for benefits before she can claim anything on his account. But once Bill turns 70 and signs up for retirement benefits, here is how they will figure what Ann will be due. They will take her full retirement rate and subtract that from one-half of Bill's full retirement rate (not his age-70 rate). So, $1,000 subtracted from $1,400 equals $400. Once Bill files for Social Security at 70, Ann will get $400 in spousal benefits added to her $750 reduced retirement benefit.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has a book with all the answers. It's called "Social Security: Simple and Smart." You can find the book at creators.com/books. Or look for it on Amazon or other book outlets. To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: nattanan23 at Pixabay

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