The rules and regs: What is a restricted application? What is 'file and supsend'?

Dear Liz,

My husband took out Social Security at 66. I also took out the spousal benefit based on his work record, as I did not have enough work credits on my own. As of the first quarter in 2015, I will have 40 credits. Can I now apply for my own Social Security benefit? If I can, will I receive more than what I’m getting now? I will be 70 when I apply.

— Diane

Dear Diane,

If you applied for spousal benefits before you reached full retirement age, then you gave up the option of switching to your own benefit later.

Full retirement age is 66 for those born between 1943 and 1954. After that, full retirement age increases two months for every year until it hits 67 for those born in 1960 and later.

If you applied for benefits after your full retirement age using what’s called a restricted application, you could have received only a spousal benefit while preserving your ability to switch to your own benefit later, typically when it maxes out at age 70. If you didn’t file a restricted application, though, the switch typically isn’t available.

Even if you could switch, it’s not clear that you would get more money. You can earn a maximum of four credits a year, so it typically takes 10 years of work to earn the 40 credits needed to qualify for your own Social Security benefit. But Social Security computes your benefit based on your 35 highest earning years. That means your work record would include a lot of zeros. It’s possible that your own benefit would exceed what you’ve received on your husband’s record. It’s just not likely.

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