retirement

The skinny on spouse's Social Security

Don TaylorQuestionDear Dr. Don,
I am 66 and collecting Social Security. My wife will be 62 in September. Is it true she will collect 35 percent of my Social Security benefits, even if it is higher than what she is qualified to receive based on her benefit?
-- John Juncture

AnswerDear John,
If she applies to receive Social Security benefits at age 62, the Social Security Administration considers her own work record and your work record. It first pays benefits based on her work record and then, if your work record qualifies her for a higher amount as a spousal benefit, she gets a combination of benefits that equals the higher amount reduced for her age. How much of a combined benefit depends on her full retirement age, but the maximum is 50 percent of the spouse's primary insurance amount.

A Social Security Web page on retirement benefits by year of birth details the reduction in the spousal benefit based on her full retirement age. If her full retirement age is 66, at age 62 she would receive 35 percent of your primary insurance amount.

Why this is such an important point is that Social Security considers her as applying for benefits based on her record, too, and the reduction in the benefits she receives is permanent for her work record and the spousal benefit. There's no filing for benefits based on her work record when she reaches full retirement age.

If she plans to work while receiving benefits, she faces the earnings limitations that could affect her benefit payments. But her earnings only affect her benefits, not yours. There's more information on the Social Security Web page that covers benefits for your spouse.

You don't say how long you've been receiving Social Security benefits. If it's been for less than a year, you could consider repaying the benefits you've received to date, change to a "file and suspend" status, which will allow you to earn delayed retirement credits on your record up to age 70, and allow her to apply for a spousal benefit. Talk to a financial planner if you're not sure whether this approach is right for you.

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

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