Dear Dr. Don,
I don’t plan to start receiving my Social Security retirement benefits until I am 65 years old. However, my wife plans to collect hers at age 62 — five years before I turn 65. Can I collect a spousal benefit before I start to collect my retirement benefit?
— Ed Expects

Dear Ed,
It’s a common misconception you can switch from receiving a spousal benefit to receiving a retirement benefit when you reach full retirement age. You can’t.

When you apply for Social Security benefits, the Social Security Administration considers your work history and what you would receive as a spousal benefit, and it pays you a benefit equivalent to whichever approach generates a higher payment at the time you apply. You don’t switch over at full retirement age to a benefit based on your work record from a spousal benefit because your work record was used when you initially applied for benefits.

From your letter, I take it that you are two years younger than your wife. Barring any special situations, your wife has to be collecting benefits based on her work record, and you have to be at least 62 before you can apply for spousal benefits. Also, for planning purposes, your full retirement age isn’t 65, it’s at least 66.

In general, I think people are in too big a hurry to collect their Social Security benefits. You take a big cut in benefits to get those payments early. The reduction in benefits is permanent, unless within the first year of receiving benefits you decide to repay them all and postpone receiving benefits until some point in the future.

Social Security studies have shown that retirees who live to their average life expectancy get about the same dollar amount of benefits, regardless of when they start receiving benefits. While health, family history and other factors can tip the scales toward applying for benefits prior to full retirement age, when these factors don’t apply, it typically makes sense for the spouse with the better work history to wait until at least full retirement age to apply for benefits.

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