Why can’t my wife have higher Social Security?

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Q. At the time of my wife’s early retirement age, we met with a local Social Security representative. My wife was told she could file for benefits and with her earnings and her husband’s, she would draw $815 per month. The rep said when my wife reached full retirement age, she could refile for her full benefits, which would be $1,150 per month. When she went to refile based on her own wages, she was told she couldn’t refile. What gives?
— Confused

A. Social Security benefits are based on several factors, and without seeing all the information the Social Security representative saw, it’s tough to give a definitive answer.

But here’s what you need to know about filing, and you’ll see how this may have had an impact on your wife’s benefits.

When you are under your full retirement age and you file for benefits, you are deemed to have filed for all benefits you are entitled to, including both your own benefit and spousal benefits if your spouse has already filed for their own benefits, said Roy Williams, president of Prestige Wealth Management in Flemington and Millburn.

He said this rule applies now and also applied prior to the law changes in 2016.

Williams said that given that your wife is receiving at least her own benefits, she cannot refile for her own benefits at age 70 because she’s already getting benefits off of her wage record, Williams said.

He thinks your question may be mixing up a few techniques that don’t apply to the fact pattern you volunteered.

“Had the wife been full retirement age and her husband had filed for his own benefits, she could have filed a `restricted application for spousal benefits only,’” Williams said. “She would have received 50 percent of his FRA benefit amount as a spousal-only benefit and deferred receiving her own benefit, allowing it to continue to grow to age 70 and then applied for her own retirement benefit at 70.”

Williams said under current law, she would have to have been born before Jan. 1, 1954 to be able to file a restricted application.

Under current law, if you were born after Jan. 1, 1954, even if you are full retirement age or older, you are deemed to have filed for all possible benefits when you apply for Social Security, he said.

If the representative used the term “refile,” it may have applied to the “file and suspend” option, which allowed one spouse, at full retirement age, to file an application for their own benefits and then immediately suspend their benefits. By filing, this allowed the other spouse to file for spousal benefits. Then at age 70, the spouse who had suspended would refile to unsuspend their benefits and get the higher benefit, Williams said.

“This technique is no longer available,” he said. “Under current laws, if you suspend your benefits, no spousal benefits are payable off of your record.”

Unfortunately, he said, your wife, in this scenario, is stuck with a permanently reduced benefit.

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