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Social Security Matters: Ask Rusty – Can I claim my Social Security now and switch to spouse benefits later?

By AMAC Certified Social Security Advisor Russell Gloor, Association of Mature American Citizens     

Dear Rusty: I am 62 and have been a homemaker for much of my adult life. I have a small Social Security account from working years ago. My husband is older, has been the major wage earner and will have a good amount in Social Security when he claims.

I have been told that I should claim my social security now. It’s a small amount – about $475 per month if I claim it now, and $550 after I’m age 66 – so it’s not a life changing difference. But if I claim mine now, when my husband reaches his full retirement age can I switch to claiming spousal benefits on his account? I understand I would no longer get mine, but I’m pretty sure my benefit from him will be a much larger amount. Signed: Inquiring Homemaker

Dear Inquiring Homemaker: The simple answer to your question is: yes, if you claim your own small benefit now you can later switch to a higher spouse benefit from your husband when he claims his SS. But there are always consequences for claiming SS benefits early. The maximum spousal benefit you can get from your husband is 50% of the benefit amount he is entitled to at his own full retirement age (FRA). But you only get that full 50% if you delay claiming your own Social Security until you reach your own FRA. That doesn’t mean you can’t claim your own reduced benefit early, but it means that when you later get your spousal benefit it will be less than 50% of your husband’s FRA benefit amount. And here’s why:

Your spouse benefit, when you receive it, will consist of your own earned benefit plus a spousal boost to bring you to your spousal entitlement. Your spousal boost will be the difference between your FRA benefit amount (regardless of when you claim) and half of your husband’s FRA benefit amount, and it will be reduced if you haven’t yet reached your FRA when your husband claims. That reduced spousal boost will be added to your own actual benefit (reduced if you claim at 62), which will yield a spouse benefit less than 50% of your husband’s FRA benefit. Said another way, when your husband claims at his FRA, you’ll get a reduced spousal boost added to your own already reduced age 62 SS retirement benefit. I can’t put this into dollar terms for you without knowing your husband’s FRA benefit amount.

FYI, if your age 62 benefit amount is $475 then your personal benefit amount at your FRA should be about $670. Essentially, the longer you wait to claim your own SS, the more your spousal benefit will be because the spousal boost will be added to the benefit you’re already receiving. Your spousal benefit reaches maximum (which is 50% of your husband’s FRA amount) at your FRA but remember that your husband must be collecting his SS for you to claim a spouse benefit.

So, here’s the bottom line: you can claim your own SS at age 62 but the benefit amount you get will be reduced by 29%. If your husband claims at his FRA, you will get a spousal boost at that time, but the amount of the spousal boost will be reduced because you will not have reached your FRA at that time. The only way you will get the full 50% of your husband’s FRA benefit amount is by waiting until your own FRA to claim Social Security. However, since your spousal benefit will be the highest amount available to you, waiting and claiming yours at the same time your husband claims his, would also be a prudent strategy to lessen the “penalty” for claiming your benefits early.

One final caution: Any time SS benefits are claimed early (before FRA) there is an “earnings test” which limits how much can be earned from working before SS takes back some benefits. Please keep this in mind if you should decide to go back to work at any time before you reach your full retirement age.

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