For married couples, getting the most out of Social Security isn’t always straightforward. In addition to the question everyone faces of when to start collecting Social Security, you may have a tricky choice between a benefit based on your own work history or your spouse’s.
In the first of his columns for Considerable, Phil Moeller, the author of Get What’s Yours for Medicare: Maximize Your Coverage, Minimize Your Costs and the co-author of the updated edition of The New York Times bestseller How to Get What’s Yours: The Revised Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security, answers three recent questions he’s gotten about this tradeoff.
For future installments of Moeller’s column, send your questions about Medicare and Social Security to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Can I take my husband’s Social Security before he does?
Nancy, Hawaii: My husband and I were born in 1953. I have worked part-time through the years and am retired. My husband is planning on working at least three more years before he retires.
Taking a spousal benefit on his earnings would produce a higher benefit than I would collect on my own earnings. He would like to defer his benefit until 70. Can I take half of his at 66, and can he continue to wait until 70?
Phil Moeller: I advise high-earning spouses to delay taking Social Security until 70 if at all possible. This guarantees them the largest-possible monthly payment, and with many people living into their 90s, having that larger payment can really come in handy.
Waiting until 70 also means that the high-earner’s spouse is also guaranteed of receiving the highest possible survivor benefit should the high earner be the first to die.
You cannot, however, file for a spousal benefit until your husband has filed for his own retirement benefit.
Given this, you should consider filing for your own retirement benefit when you turn 66. Once you’ve filed and your husband is at least 66, he can file what’s called a restricted application for a spousal benefit, while allowing his own retirement benefit to grow until he files for it at age 70.
When he does this, you can file for a spousal benefit and will receive an extra payment equal to the amount by which your spousal benefit exceeds your own retirement benefit.
Will filing for Social Security early mean lower spousal benefits later?
Bob, Virginia: My wife and I, now both age 62, were two years too young to meet any of the “grandfathered” optimal Social Security filing choices available before the 2015 law passed and became fully effective.
If both spouses have qualifying covered wages, can the one with the lower benefits file under his or her own retirement early (age 62 or later) and get a spousal step-up benefit under the higher earner’s filing when that spouse later files for their own benefit? Or will they always be stuck with their own benefit?
Phil Moeller: If the lower-earning spouse files for their own retirement benefit and their higher-earning spouse has not yet filed for theirs, the lower earner will later be eligible for an excess spousal benefit when the higher earner later files.
However, early filing will reduce the lower earner’s retirement benefits and also prevent them from receiving the highest possible spousal benefit later on. So, unless the higher earner has made a whole lot more money, the strategy you suggest may not generate much in the way of additional benefits.
I’d urge you to look at the benefit specifics in your scenario and compare them with a scenario where the lower-earning spouse simply holds off filing their own benefit until a later time.
Will I qualify for my ex’s Social Security benefit after he dies?
Vicky: After 35 years of marriage, my husband and I divorced. I am 68; he is 77. He was married once before for 16 years. I already receive my own Social Security retirement benefit.
Should he die before me, will I qualify for his Social Security amount? Does the fact he was married before affect this?
Phil Moeller: Someone already receiving Social Security who is unmarried, or married again after age 60, is eligible to file for what would be referred to as an excess ex-spousal survivor benefit.
It should equal the amount your survivor benefit exceeds your own retirement benefit. His prior marriage should not affect your own benefit.
These questions previously appeared on the PBS NewsHour Making Sen$e website.