retirement

Which spouse gets Social Security benefits?

Don TaylorDear Dr. Don,
You state in an earlier column about Social Security spousal benefits: "I discussed your question with Edward Lafferty, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration. He confirmed there's only one spousal benefit available to a couple. Both spouses can't file and suspend and then each receive a spousal benefit based on the other spouse's work record while both earning delayed retirement credits."

An agent at our Social Security office told me otherwise this week: that we can both file and suspend and collect spousal benefits. Can you point to the part of the Program Operations Manual System, or POMS, that supports what you were told, i.e., that there is only one spousal benefit to a couple? (By the way, this isn't the first time I have received different information on such things from different government workers in the same organization!)
-- Larry Love-Knot

Dear Larry,
I'll stand by my earlier column and so does Mr. Lafferty. While it's possible for both spouses to earn delayed retirement credits, it's not possible for both spouses to receive a full spousal benefit. In a nutshell, it's because at least one of them has filed for benefits based on his or her work record. This is spelled out in the Code of Federal Regulations Section 404.330, Who is entitled to wife's or husband's benefits.

For a spouse to get a spousal benefit, the other spouse has to file for benefits. To simplify the discussion, I'm going to assume that the man is the one that files, and the woman will receive the spousal benefit. When the man files, he can choose to "file and suspend" if he is at full retirement age, but he has to have filed for his wife to receive a spousal benefit.

How this scenario typically plays out is that the higher-earning spouse, at full retirement age, files and suspends in order to earn delayed retirement credits on his work record while allowing his spouse to claim a spousal benefit if she is eligible for that benefit based on her age.

So, if the higher-earning spouse files for retirement income benefits and then elects benefit suspension to earn delayed retirement credits, he cannot elect and receive a full spouse's benefit. This is because the claim for benefits will either be denied for failing to meet eligibility requirements (his primary insurance amount is too high), or he will only be eligible for the larger excess monthly benefit amount portion of the full benefit.

If the spouse has a work record and she is at full retirement age, she can receive a spousal benefit while earning delayed retirement credits on her own work record up until age 70.

The Social Security POMS doesn't have one specific reference on dual spousal benefits on or after full retirement age. The POMS references are interrelated depending on the ages and work history of the couple. The POMS related references you requested are: RS00615.020 Dual entitlement overview, GN02409.100 Voluntary suspension and GN02409.110 Conditions for voluntary suspension.

Thanks to Edward Lafferty, public affairs specialist at the Social Security Administration, for helping me with this reply.

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