How Social Security spousal benefits work


Q. I’m confused about “spousal benefits.” My wife, who is 64, has been on Social Security disability for 15 years. I recently retired at age 62 and applied for Social Security, and my benefit is reduced because of a pension. Can I receive additional benefits on her record, or can she receive more on my record?
— Hopeful

A. Trying to maximize Social Security benefits can be complicated.

Ultimately, it all depends on your specific records.

Let’s first cover how spousal benefits work.

Spousal benefits are available if you are at least 62 years of age and your spouse is receiving retirement or disability benefits, said Gerard Papetti, a certified financial planner and certified public accountant with U.S. Financial Services in Fairfield.

So in your specific situation, upon attaining age 62, you were eligible to claim a spousal benefit if is was higher than your primary benefit.

There used to be other claiming strategies that could have helped you take home more, but they ended with the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015.

One was called “file and suspend.”

“Under the new law, if you were age 66 or older by until April 29, 2016, you could still file and suspend your primary benefit and earned Delayed Retirement Credits (DRCs),” Papetti said. “But after April 29, 2016, the file and suspend strategy ceased to exist and is no longer available to a spouse to collect a spousal benefit and delay their own benefit until a future date.”

If an individual suspends their benefits, all spousal benefits will be suspended, he said.

Then there were changes to what’s knows as a restricted application.

“This change expanded the ‘deemed application’ rules from applying only to early benefits – prior to full retirement age – to instead applying to all benefits regardless of age,” Papetti said.

The Social Security Handbook, Section 1510, says of the deemed filing rule: “If you are eligible for both reduced retirement insurance benefits and reduced spouse’s insurance benefits, you cannot restrict an application to just one of these types of benefits. By filing for either benefit, you are deemed by law to have filed for both types of benefits.”

Papetti said the new rules regarding the restricted application applies only to individuals who were born after 1953. Anyone born in 1953 or earlier is grandfathered and will still be able to engage in filing a restricted application in the future.

So what does this mean for you?

“As you and your wife were born in 1954 or later you are not able to file a restricted application and you are subject to the new deemed filing rule – that if you file for any benefit which you have recently done for your primary benefit at age 62, you are deemed to be filing for all benefits you are eligible for,” Papetti said. “Therefore, being eligible for your own benefit as well as a spousal benefit, you will only be paid a single benefit—the equivalent of the higher of the two.”

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