Social Security spousal benefits

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Q. I know if my spouse starts collecting Social Security before full retirement age, there is a reduction of benefits. Let’s say it’s a 30 percent reduction. Let’s say I start collecting when I reach FRA. Then when my spouse reaches FRA, can she collect spousal benefits (50 percent of my benefit) or would it be 50 percent less the 30 percent reduction because she started collecting prior to FRA)?
— Husband

A. You’re correct that if you receive benefits prior to FRA, your benefit isn’t maximized.

Every year you wait will increase your benefit by about 8 percent.

On what your spouse can do, here’s what the Social Security Administration’s website says:

“If you have not worked or do not have enough Social Security credits to qualify for your own Social Security benefits, you may be able to receive spouse’s benefits.

“To qualify for spouse’s benefits, you must be: at least 62 years of age; or any age and caring for a child entitled to receive benefits on your spouse’s record who is younger than age 16 or disabled.

“If you are eligible for both your own retirement benefits and for benefits as a spouse, we always pay 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 spouse benefit.

“If you choose to begin receiving spouse’s benefits before you reach full retirement age, your benefit amount will be reduced and will not be increased when you reach full retirement age.”

The website offers this example:

“Mary Ann qualifies for a retirement benefit of $250 and a spouse’s benefit of $400. At her full retirement age, she will receive her own $250 retirement benefit, and we will add $150 from her spouse’s benefit, for a total of $400. If she takes her retirement benefit before her full retirement age, both amounts will be reduced.”

So your spouse will get a combination.

SSA says if you wait until you reach full retirement age to apply for spousal benefits, you will receive the maximum benefit, which is up to half of the amount your spouse is entitled to receive at full retirement age. If you have reached full retirement age and you are eligible for a spouse’s benefit and your own retirement benefit, you may have options to increase your own retirement benefit amount, it said.

SSA offers a tool to determine how much a spouse would receive.

Here’s more guidance from the site:

“If you qualify for benefits on your own record, we will pay that amount first. If the benefit on your spouse’s record is higher, you’ll get an additional amount on your spouse’s record so that the combination of benefits equals that higher amount.”

It adds: “Your benefits as a spouse do not include any delayed retirement credits your spouse may receive.”

Importantly, the spousal benefit is affected by your age.

“If you were born before January 2, 1954 and have already reached full retirement age, you can choose to receive only the spouse’s benefit and delay receiving your retirement benefit until a later date. If your birthday is January 2, 1954 or later, the option to take only one benefit at full retirement age no longer exists. If you file for one benefit, you will be effectively filing for all retirement or spousal benefits.”

Complicated? Indeed.

That’s why we encourage you contact the Social Security Administration to get information on your specific benefits based on your age and work history.

Email your questions to .

This post was first published in February 2017. presents certain general financial planning principles and advice, but should never be viewed as a substitute for obtaining advice from a personal professional advisor who understands your unique individual circumstances.