• February 1, 2023

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Today’s Social Security column addresses questions about how early retirement benefits can affect later spousal benefits, whether both working and delaying can increase retirement benefits and survivor benefits after early retirement benefits. Larry Kotlikoff is a Professor of Economics at Boston University and the founder and president of Economic Security Planning, Inc.

See more Ask Larry answers here.

Have Social Security questions of your own you’d like answered? Ask Larry about Social Security here.


Can My Wife Get Her Full Spousal Rate After Early Social Security Retirement Benefits?

Hi Larry, I am almost two years younger than my wife, but was the primary breadwinner. I don’t plan to take my retirement benefits until 70. Can my wife take her lower retirement benefit on her earnings at 62 and then, when I file, switch to 1/2 my FRA amount? We don’t want to do anything foolish like lock her in to a lower amount forever. Thanks, Sid

Hi Sid, Once a person starts drawing their own Social Security retirement benefits, those benefits continue for life. Your wife could file for her own benefits at 62 and then file for an excess spousal benefit when you start drawing your retirement benefits, but she’d keep any reduction for age applicable to her own benefit rate.

So, assuming that 50% of your primary insurance amount (PIA), which is equal to your full retirement age (FRA) retirement benefit amount is higher than your wife’s PIA, the only way that she’d get a full half of your PIA when you start drawing is if she waits until her FRA to start drawing her own retirement benefits. However, even if your wife starts drawing her own benefits at 62, if she’s at least FRA when she files for her excess spousal benefit, it won’t be reduced further.

Also note that if you predecease her and she’s past her FRA, she could be paid the higher of her own benefit amount or your full benefit amount as a surviving spouse. You and your wife may want to consider using my company’s software — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — to ensure your household receives the highest lifetime benefits. Social Security calculators provided by other companies or non-profits may provide proper suggestions if they were built with extreme care. Best, Larry

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If My Wife Keeps Working And Waits Until 70 To Start Benefits, Would She Get Her Maximum Benefit?

Hi Larry, My wife and I have been married for 26 years, I am 59 and she is 54. We have looked at our benefits and will both make about $2,800 per month if we wait until 67 to retire.

If I decide to start taking benefits at 62, which would be about $1,900 per month, and my wife kept working and waited until 70 to file, would she get the maximum benefit? if she died before me, would I then be able to claim her higher amount? Thanks, Carl

Hi Carl, Yes, although I’m not sure what you mean by “the maximum benefit.” If your wife waits until 70 to start drawing, her Social Security retirement benefit rate would be as high as it could be given her earnings history.

Your wife’s primary insurance amount (PIA) will be calculated based on an average of her highest 35 years of Social Security covered wage-indexed earnings, and if she waits until 70 to start drawing her monthly benefit rate will be 24% higher than her PIA (i.e. PIA x 1.24).

And yes, even if you start drawing at 62, if your wife starts drawing her benefits at 70 and if she subsequently dies before you, then you could be paid her full age 70 rate as a survivor. You couldn’t be paid both your own benefit rate and your wife’s full rate though, just the higher of the two benefit amounts. Best, Larry


Can I Collect My Own Benefits At 63 And Collect On My Late Husband’s Account When I Reach FRA?

Hi Larry, I am planning to retire late 2022 at 63. My husband passed away in 2012. I remarried at 62. I understand that I can collect my widow’s benefit based on my late husband’s record since I remarried after 60. My current husband remains employed and will retire later this year.

I’ll retire a couple months before him. Can I collect my retirement benefit on my own record and then collect widow’s benefit when I reach FRA? Will the benefit be higher? Thanks, Kelly

Hi Kelly, Yes, you can claim your own benefits at 63 and then file for remarried widow’s benefits at your full retirement age (FRA). That may or may not be your best strategy, though, depending on the relative amounts of your own benefit vs. your widow’s rate.

And yes, your potential widow’s benefit would be higher if you wait until FRA to claim it, provided that your deceased spouse didn’t collect early Social Security retirement benefits prior to his death. You can’t draw both a full widow’s benefit plus your own benefit rate at the same time though, just the higher of the two amounts.

Your best filing strategy could be either filing for reduced widow’s benefits early and then switching to your own record at 70, or filing for reduced retirement benefits on your own record early and then filing for unreduced widow’s benefits at full retirement age (FRA). Normally, you would want to start out drawing the lower benefit first and then switch to the higher record when it reaches its highest potential rate. Best, Larry


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