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Can my wife get higher Social Security on my record?


Q. My wife is 72 .She took her Social Security at 62 on her own work record at $1,100 a month. Since she has already passed her full benefit age, can she now stop her benefit and collect half of my benefit, $1,300? I heard that if she decides to collect on my earnings, she will not get my half my benefit now and her half benefit would be reduced by 20%. I also heard that if I’m dead, she will not get my full benefit but it would also be reduced by 20%.
— Husband

A. Whoa.

The short answer — and good news — is that what you’ve heard is probably wrong.

To answer your questions fully, we’d need to know your current age and the age when you began collecting your Social Security retirement benefits, but we can outline the general rules here that should lead you to the answers.

Let’s start with the rules for spousal benefits.

Social Security benefits include not only retirement and disability payments but also benefits for family members, such as spousal benefits for married and divorced couples and survivor benefits for widows and widowers, said Gene McGovern, a certified financial planner with McGovern Financial Advisors in Westfield.

“Starting at age 62, provided that you’ve been legally married to your spouse for one year, you become eligible not only for retirement benefits but also for spousal benefits — that is, benefits that are based on your spouse’s work record rather than your own,” he said. “Even if one spouse has never worked, he or she may be eligible for spousal benefits on the other spouse’s work record.”

The maximum spousal benefit is equal to 50 percent of the other spouse’s full retirement age benefit, known as their primary insurance amount, he said.

In order for you to collect a spousal benefit, your spouse must have already filed for his or her own retirement benefit. No spousal benefits are payable until that happens, McGovern said, noting that different rules apply for divorced spouses.

He said if your own retirement benefit is less than your spousal benefit, Social Security will pay you the difference, adding it to your retirement benefit.

McGovern offered this example. Assume that your retirement benefit is $1,000 per month, and your spouse’s primary insurance amount is $2,400. One-half of your spouse’s benefit, $1,200, is more than your retirement benefit of $1,000, so Social Security would add the difference of $200 to your payment as a spousal benefit. You’d then receive a total payment of $1,200.

On the other hand, he said, if your own retirement benefit exceeds one-half of your spouse’s primary insurance amount, you’re ineligible to receive spousal benefits.

Note that, as the example illustrates, spousal benefits are paid in addition to, not in place of, your retirement benefits, McGovern said. It’s not a question of stopping one benefit and switching to the other.

Also note that your spousal benefit is based on your spouse’s primary insurance amount, regardless of the benefit he or she is actually receiving, he said.

For example, if your spouse had filed for benefits early, and was receiving a reduced benefit of only $2,000 per month instead of $2,400, your spousal benefit would still be based on the primary insurance amount of $2,400, he said.

“As with retirement benefits, if you collect spousal benefits before reaching your full retirement age, the benefits are permanently reduced,” he said. “For example, had your wife begun collecting spousal benefits at age 62 along with her retirement benefits, which were reduced by 25 percent, the spousal benefits would also have been reduced, by 30 percent.”

Complicating the answer to your first question somewhat are Social Security’s so-called deemed filing rules, McGovern said. For most people, if you’re eligible for more than one benefit, such as retirement and spousal benefits, and you file for either one, you’re deemed — required — to file for both, he said. In effect, the benefits are bundled, and you receive the highest benefit payable from that bundle.

However, for deemed filing to occur with spousal benefits, the other spouse must have filed for his or her own retirement benefits, either previously or at the same time, he said.

“Since your wife filed for retirement benefits at age 62 but did not receive spousal benefits, we have to assume that you had not yet filed for your retirement benefits at that time,” McGovern said. “Otherwise, your wife would have been deemed to file for both benefits, and she would have started collecting reduced spousal benefits along with her retirement benefits.”

How much your wife would receive now in spousal benefits depends on when you filed for your own retirement benefits. At the point that you did so, your wife became eligible for spousal benefits and should have been deemed to file for them, he said.

For example, if you filed for your retirement benefits when your wife was age 66 or older — her full retirement age — her spousal benefits should not be reduced because she did not become eligible for them until then, McGovern said.

“Assuming that your benefit of $2,600 per month is your primary insurance amount, your wife should be eligible to receive one-half of that, or $1,300, reduced by her own retirement benefit of $1,100,” he said. “In other words, if your wife files now for spousal benefits, her own $1,100 retirement benefit would continue, but should be increased by the spousal benefit of $200 per month — $1,300 minus $1,100 — for a total of $1,300.”

On the other hand, if you filed for your benefits before your wife turned 66, her spousal benefit — but not her retirement benefit — would be reduced, he said.

You should contact Social Security directly and it can advise you on benefits based on your personal records.

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This story was originally published on Nov. 11, 2021. 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.