Sometimes a Woman Can Switch From Her Own to Spousal Benefits

By Tom Margenau

March 4, 2020 7 min read

Many women are constantly sending me emails complaining that they think they should be getting some extra spousal benefits to supplement their own smaller Social Security check. They reason that their benefit is smaller than half of their husband's rate, so they should get the difference.

However, they are almost always being paid correctly, because what they fail to take into account is the fact that they started their benefits at age 62 — and by doing that, they do NOT get the normal 50% spousal rate. It will be closer to about 35%.

Here is a typical example. Juan gets $1,500 in retirement benefits. His wife, Maria, gets $600 on her own retirement account. Maria thinks she should get another $150 in spousal benefits to take her up to half of Juan's check, or $750. But Maria took benefits at age 62. That means she is only due 35% of Juan's rate, or $525. Her own $600 is more than her $525 spousal benefit, so she isn't due anything on Juan's account (while he is alive). She would be due a higher widow's check after he dies. But that's a story for another column. Today I am talking about benefits to spouses of a living husband.

But there are situations where a wife can take reduced retirement benefits on her own record and then later switch to higher benefits on her husband's account. This almost always happens when the husband files for benefits years after the wife files for her own. And the following question is a typical example of that scenario.

Q: My wife is about to turn 62. I am 61. She is eligible for a small Social Security check on her own record. And she wants to file for those benefits now. But I think she is wrong. If she takes her reduced retirement check now, she won't be able to get half of mine later on. So, I think she should wait five years, until I turn 66, when I plan to sign up for my much higher Social Security benefit. Then she will get half of my benefit. So, am I right? Or is my wife right?

A: I think your wife is right. And the only way I can explain it to you is with examples. You didn't give me any benefit amounts. So, I will make up some numbers. Let's say your wife's full retirement age benefit rate is $1,000. By filing at age 62, she will get 75% of that, or $750 per month. Further, let's say your full retirement age benefit will be $2,800.

Now we'll follow your advice first. That means your wife does nothing now. In five years, when you turn 66, you will start getting $2,800 per month. Then your wife will file for spousal benefits and she will get 50% of your benefit, or $1,400 per month. (Actually, she would be paid her own $1,000 retirement check and then she would get $400 in spousal benefits to take her up to the $1,400 spousal rate.)

And now look at what your wife wants to do. She wants to file for her benefits now, meaning she will start getting $750 per month right away. Then in five years, when you turn 66 and file for your benefits, she still can file for spousal benefits. The reduction she took in her own retirement checks will carry over to her spousal rate. Here is roughly how they will figure out what she is due. They will take her full retirement age benefit rate of $1,000 and subtract that from one-half of your full retirement age rate of $2,800, or $1,400. So, $1,400 minus $1,000 leaves $400. And that becomes her spousal benefit that will be added to her reduced retirement rate. So, she will start getting $1,150 per month in total benefits after you turn 66. ($750 plus $400 equals $1,150.)

Now let's compare the two scenarios. In your option, your wife does get an extra $250 per month in benefits ($1,400 is $250 more than $1,150).

But if you go with your option, which again means your wife doesn't file for any Social Security benefits until you turn 66, she would be throwing away the $750 per month retirement check she would have been due beginning now when she is 62. So, over the next five years, she would lose $45,000 in Social Security benefits just to get that extra $250 per month when you are 66. It would take her 180 months to make up that loss. In other words, your wife would be 81 years old before she comes out ahead in your scenario.

Q: When you write about benefits for spouses, you always use women in your examples. But what about a situation like ours? My wife was the main breadwinner in our family. I stayed home and took care of the kids. Although I did work part time over the years, so I will be due a small Social Security benefit on my own. We are both about to turn 60, and Social Security is now on our radar. Will I be due any benefits on my wife's Social Security record?

A: Yes, you will. And I'm sorry I don't make this clear more often. It's just that Social Security Administration statistics show that 95% of benefits paid to spouses go to women. So almost all my questions about such benefits come from women or from men inquiring about benefits for their wives.

But times are changing, and there are more and more scenarios where a wife makes as much as, if not more than, her husband. And when that happens, they should know that all Social Security laws are gender neutral. The same rules about benefits, including benefits for spouses, apply to women and men.

So, in your case, once you and your wife decide to start collecting Social Security, you will be paid your own small retirement benefit first. And then they will look to your wife's record and supplement your own check with whatever husband's benefits you are due on her account.

Q. I am 62. My husband is 57. I was a homemaker most of my life and have no Social Security record. Is it true I won't get any of his Social Security until he starts drawing benefits himself?

A. You made the same mistake my wife did. You married a younger man! And yes, it is true that you can't collect on his Social Security account until he signs up for his own benefits.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at [email protected] 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

Photo credit: niekverlaan at Pixabay

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