Taking survivors Social Security benefits vs. spousal benefits

Dear Senior Living Adviser,
If I opt to collect Social Security benefits at age 62 (my own benefits) and down the road my husband passes away, can I claim the regular amount of spousal benefits from his Social Security?

He plans to claim benefits at age 66. Spousal benefits based on his work record would be more than my own benefits.

Or will the spousal benefits be reduced (because I claimed at 62 versus 66)? This is crucial because we could really use the money when I turn 62, but I hesitate to take my own reduced benefits at age 62, if by doing so I will reduce the spousal benefits I would be entitled to if he dies before me.
— Tina Entitled

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Hero Images/Getty Images

Dear Tina,
Should your husband die before you, you will be entitled to a survivors benefit equal to his monthly Social Security benefit, which is more than the spousal benefit based on his work record.

If you are eligible for your own retirement benefits, as well as for benefits as a spouse, Social Security always pays your own benefits first. If your benefits as a spouse are higher than your own retirement benefits, you will get a combination of benefits equaling the higher spousal benefit.

Switching to a spousal benefit

If your husband hasn’t yet applied for benefits when you turn 62 and file for your benefits, that combination of benefits isn’t yet relevant, and your benefits are based on your earnings record.

Switching to a spousal benefit at your full retirement age will get you an increase in benefits equal to the difference between half of his primary insurance amount and your PIA. That’s because you’re getting a combination of the 2 benefits. But, because you took your benefits early, you don’t get your full PIA as a benefit, so the combined benefit is reduced.

How the numbers work

Here’s a numerical example. Tina and Eric are age 66. Tina started her benefits early at age 62. Her PIA is $800, and Eric’s PIA is $2,000. Since she filed early, Tina’s monthly benefit is reduced to $600, 75%, of her PIA. Now at age 66 — full retirement age for both of them — Eric files for benefits, allowing Tina to file for spousal benefits. The calculation is as follows: 50% of Eric’s PIA ($1,000) minus Tina’s PIA ($800) equals $200.

When Tina files for spousal benefits at age 66, she will receive an additional $200 on her monthly check for a total of $800, which is less than half of Eric’s PIA.

I think it is money well spent to work with a private Social Security consultant to evaluate Social Security claiming strategies, especially for couples. Social Security Solutions and Maximize My Social Security are 2 firms that do this type of consulting.

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