Timely Social Security filing for couples?

Don TaylorDear Dr. Don,
In your recent response to a question from "Karen Choices," you said: "My recommendation for you is that, at your full retirement age of 66, you claim a spousal benefit based on your ex-husband's work record, providing that you haven't remarried. You'll receive a benefit equal to 50% of what Social Security calls his 'primary insurance amount,' the benefit he would receive at his normal retirement age. You'll earn delayed retirement credits on your work record while receiving the spousal benefit."

My question is: Would this be still true if the wife's Social Security benefit would be greater than her husband's? We're in a similar situation. I'll file for Social Security in 2 years when I turn 66, and my wife will be 64. However, she will have earned a slightly larger Social Security benefit on her own. Will she still earn delayed retirement credits while receiving the spousal benefit? Can she do this when she turns 64, or does she have to wait until she is 66?

-- Ed Elucidate

Senior couple seated together © iStock

Dear Ed,
Thank you for the question because this is a popular subject where people need a bit of help. But first off, there's a difference between Karen's question and the one involving your wife. Karen is divorced.

For both Karen and your wife, they shouldn't apply for the spousal benefit until reaching full retirement age of 66, if that's possible. Your wife can then earn delayed retirement credits based on her own work record up to age 70. At age 70, she can file for Social Security retirement benefits based on her work record.

Before full retirement age ...

Filing prior to her full retirement age will permanently reduce your wife's benefits. And she'll receive a monthly payment based partly on her own work record and partly on a spousal benefit, if you have filed for Social Security by that time. When she finally does turn 66, she won't be able to change to either a spousal or a work-based benefit.

Higher earning spouse might wait

The spouse with the higher earnings is typically the better candidate for waiting to file for benefits and earning the delayed retirement credits. In this case, that's your wife.

You can file for benefits based on your work record when you reach your full retirement age of 66. Two years later, when your wife reaches full retirement age, she can file for a spousal benefit based on your work record and then earn delayed retirement credits based on her own work record up until age 70. No divorce required. Enjoy your "golden years;" you've earned them!

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