Best Social Security Claiming Strategies For Working Spouses?

By: Michelle Buonincontri, CFP®, CDFA

Q: My husband retired from the military after 30 years of service. He turned 72 November 24, 2018. He receives his Social Security check, a check from the Veterans Affairs, and he also receives multiple pensions. I still work but I don't make a lot of money. Am I entitled to early Social Security on his behalf?

A: There's some information we need to answer your question specifically, said Michelle Buonincontri, a certified financial planner with and founder of Being Mindful in Divorce.

For instance, you didn't mention your age and there are many nuances that apply around Social Security eligibility and benefits, said Buonincontri.

In general, however, there are two "retirement" benefits available to you as a "married working" person (depending on your age):

  1. A benefit based on your own earning record, called a retirement insurance benefit (RIB)

  2. A spousal benefit based on your husband's earning record, called a disability insurance benefit (DIB)

There are two other Social Security benefits known as Retroactivity for widow(er)'s insurance benefits (WIB) and Retroactivity for Disability Insurance Benefit (DIB), which are outside the scope of this question.

According to Buonincontri, the rule for a spousal Insurance benefit (SIB), states that if you are at least age 62 and your spouse is already receiving retirement benefits or disability insurance benefits (DIB), you can receive a spousal benefit of "up to" 50% of your spouse's eligible full retirement age (FRA) "base" Social Security benefit, or primary insurance amount (PIA) at their (FRA). A spousal benefit will not include any delayed retirement benefit credits (DRCs) your husband may be receiving or entitled to (See considerations below.)

"In your scenario, your husband is already receiving benefits and you would be 'deemed' to be applying for both a 'spousal benefit' (SIB) and your own 'retirement benefit' at the same time," said Buonincontri. "This means that Social Security will always pay your benefit first based on your earnings record, and then if your spousal benefit is higher, you will get a combination of funds equaling the higher amount of the spousal benefit."

Buonincontri gave this example: If your retirement benefit was $1,000, and your spousal benefit was $1500 (50% of your spouse's $3,000 based benefit), you would receive $1,500. This is $1,000 based on your record and a spousal benefit of $500

Note, however, had your spouse not already filed for benefits, you would not be deemed as filing for a spousal benefit (SIB) at this time - just a retirement benefit (RIB) of $1,000 based on your earning record, said Buonincontri. Then in the future when your spouse applied for benefits, the spousal benefit rules would apply and if that spousal amount was larger than your own benefit ($1,500 is greater than $1,000), your benefit would automatically be increased to ($1,500 in this example) to cover that additional money, she said.

Note too, said Buonincontri, this consideration that may reduce your benefit: If you begin receiving benefits at least age 62 and file before your FRA, your spousal benefit will be "permanently" reduced for each month you are filing early and your benefit will not increase when you reach your FRA; making your spousal benefit less than 50% of your spouse's full retirement "base" benefit or PIA. "Additionally, if your husband delayed receiving Social Security benefits past his FRA, for example to age 69 or 70, so that he would get a bigger check, you are not entitled to a spousal benefit based on his delayed retirement credits or DRCs, said Buonincontri. "So, his base benefit at his FRA will be less than what he is receiving and your percentage will be based on a lower amount, meaning a smaller benefit for you."

Buonincontri also issued a caution: Filing for early benefits "before" your FRA, will prevent you from utilizing claiming strategies that might allow you to switch between benefits. "For example, as a widow you could take a Widow Insurance Benefit (WIB) and later switch to your own retirement benefit or RIB in the future if that benefit was larger," she said. "You lose this option if you choose to receive a spousal benefit before your FRA."

  • At FRA - a spousal benefit cannot exceed 50% of your spouse's full retirement benefit

    • If you were born before Nov. 1, 1954, then after your FRA you can choose a "restrict and suspend" strategy, said Buonincontri. "This would allow you to file a restricted application to receive only a spousal benefit now and delay receiving a retirement benefit based on your own earnings record until a future date - maybe age 70, when you benefit is larger due to delayed retirement credits or DRCs," she said.

    • Unfortunately, due to Social Security changes that went into effect Nov. 2, 2015 - those born on or after Jan. 2, 1954 cannot file a "restricted" application to only receive spousal benefits, said Buonincontri. "Instead you will automatically be filing for 'all' benefits that you are eligible for and don't have the opportunity for your retirement benefit based on your earnings record to grow," she said.

Your spousal benefit may be reduced for other reasons as well, said Buonincontri. "For instance, you mentioned that you are working," she said. "The amount of Social Security benefit based on your spouse's earning record or PIA may be reduced if you are entitled to a pension from previous work, not covered by Social Security under the Government Pension Offset or GPO. Additionally, she said, your benefit can be reduced if you have a child eligible for benefits under your spouse's earning record as there is a "maximum amount" that can be paid to family members.

"As you can see this is complicated," said Buonincontri. "There are too many opportunities to make an uninformed decision and in turn not maximize your benefit," she said. "This decision is irreversible and applying online limits your options, as the restricted application option is not available."

Buonincontri's best advice: Make an appointment at your local Social Security office and explore all options at your age, any benefits of delaying and receiving at a different time, as well as inquiring and understanding if the "restrict and suspend/defer" option under a "restricted" application is available and makes sense for you.

Got questions about the new tax law, Social Security, Medicare, retirement, investments, or money in general? Want to be considered for a Money Makeover? Email: Robert.Powell@TheStreet.com. Kim McSheridan assisted with this report.

This article originally appeared as Ask Bob: Best Social Security Claiming Strategies For Working Spouses? on The Street.


Michelle Buonincontri Circle Headshot.png

Michelle Buonincontri is the Founder of Being Mindful in Divorce. She’s a divorced single mom, passionate about using her professional experience as a CFP® & CDFA™ and personal journey to support women in transition; creating confidence through education so they can make financial choices with peace of mind. Bringing together a background in investment management, tax prep and retirement planning, to provide Divorce planning (with singles or couples) and Financial Coaching services, financial literacy workshops and writings.