Dear Dr. Don,
I saw Dr. Don’s answer regarding Social Security spousal benefits when the working spouse is older. My situation is different. My nonworking spouse is older and will reach retirement age three and a half years before I do. What options does my wife have for spousal Social Security benefits when she reaches retirement age? She worked a little bit years ago but does not have enough credits for her own Social Security benefit. From what little I have seen, it appears my wife cannot get any benefits until I retire, so she loses out on three and a half years of spousal benefits simply because I am younger than she is.
— Dave Dilemma

Dear Dave,
For your spouse to collect a spousal benefit on your Social Security record, you have to be old enough to collect benefits on your work record and have applied for those benefits. The earliest you can apply for benefits is age 62. However, claiming retirement benefits prior to full retirement age substantially reduces your retirement benefit.

The good news is if she is at her full retirement age and you start benefits prior to full retirement, her spousal benefit is one-half of your full retirement benefit. You receive a reduced benefit, and she does not.

I’m not suggesting you file for benefits at age 62. I think too many people are applying for these reduced benefits at 62 when they should be taking a longer-term view toward their retirement and retirement-income needs. Another consideration is if you file at age 62 and you die before your spouse, her survivor’s benefit is reduced because you took early benefits.

You’re trying to maximize your combined benefits. You can look to Social Security calculators available both on the Social Security Administration’s website and on the AARP website to test different retirement scenarios. Although it wouldn’t increase her spousal benefit, if you wait until at least your full retirement age to claim Social Security benefits, it is likely to be your best strategy.

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