Ask Larry: Are Social Security Spousal Benefits Always Reduced Before Full Retirement Age?

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Today’s Social Security column addresses questions about spousal benefit rate reductions when taken before full retirement age, requesting benefit recalculation to ensure accuracy and potential effects of early retirement benefits on later survivor’s 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.


Are Social Security Spousal Benefits Taken Before Full Retirement Age Always Reduced?

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Hi Larry, I have heard that you can draw a spousal benefit that’s half of your spouses Social Security retirement benefit before you reach full retirement age. Is this true? And if I am on disability right now and I just turned 62, can I still do this? I was also made to understand that it’s only until you reach Full retirement age then you have to choose and most people choose the higher of the two benefit amounts. Thanks, Kelly

Hi Kelly, That isn’t true. Unreduced spousal benefits are calculated at 50% of the worker’s primary insurance amount (PIA), which is equal to their full retirement age (FRA) retirement benefit amount. But if you start drawing spousal benefits prior to full retirement age (FRA, your rate is reduced for age.

Furthermore, if you file for spousal benefits prior to FRA, you are deemed to also be filing for your own Social Security retirement benefits at the same time. In that case, you can only qualify for spousal benefits if your spousal benefit rate is higher than your own retirement benefit rate.

The only people who can file for spousal benefits without also filing for their own benefits are people born prior to 1/2/1954, and even they can only do so if they claim spousal benefits at FRA or later.

If you’re receiving Social Security disability (SSDI) benefits and if you’re age 62 or older, you could potentially apply for spousal benefits, but you’ll only qualify for spousal benefits if your spouse’s PIA is more than twice as much as your own full SSDI rate.

ou couldn’t claim spousal benefits until your spouse starts drawing their Social Security retirement or SSDI benefits though, and if you qualify for spousal benefits and if you start drawing them prior to FRA, your spousal rate would be reduced for age.

You and your spouse may want to consider using my company’s software — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — to fully analyze your options so you can make informed decisions about your best strategy for maximizing your benefits and avoid unknowingly leaving money on the table. Social Security calculators provided by other companies or non-profits may provide proper suggestions if they were built with extreme care. Best, Larry


Can I Request To Have My Benefit Rate Calculated Again?

Hi Larry, I became disabled with and I strongly believe my Social Security benefit was not calculated correctly. Can I request that it be calculated again? I started receiving it in 1997 and due to circumstances at the time, the process was rushed and I’m really think it may not have been calculated correctly. Thanks, Aaron

Hi Aaron, Yes, you can submit a written and signed request for a recalculation of your benefit rate to Social Security. The preferred form for that purpose is an SSA-795, which is basically a blank form on which you write out what you’re requesting and why.

The form can then be submitted to your servicing Social Security office. I should add though, that Social Security does calculate benefit rates correctly in most cases. Best, Larry


What Impact Would Filing For Her Own Benefits At Age 62 Have On My Wife’s Survivor Rate?

Hi Larry, I am 52 and my wife is 51. The best strategy to maximize our Social Security income seems to be for my wife to claim her retirement benefit at 62 and for me to claim spousal benefits until I am 70 and then switch over to my retirement benefit given that I am the one earning higher salary over time.

But what impact would this have on her widow’s benefit if I were to die before I turn 70? Can she still wait until I would have turned 70 to get the highest widow’s benefit possible? Thanks, Miguel

Hi Miguel, If you die prior to applying for benefits, your wife’s unreduced widow’s rate would be at least 100% of your primary insurance amount (PIA). A person’s PIA is equal to their Social Security retirement benefit rate if they start drawing their benefits at full retirement age (FRA).

If you die after reaching full retirement age (FRA), your wife’s unreduced widow’s rate would be equal to 100% of the benefit rate that you would have been due if you’d started drawing your benefits in the month of your death. That would be your PIA augmented by the delayed retirement credits (DRCs) you’d earned up until the time of your death.

To get 100% of your PIA or 100% of your PIA plus DRCs, your wife would have to wait until her FRA to start drawing her widow’s benefit. She could potentially collect her own retirement benefit prior to that though, and any reduction for age applied to her retirement benefit rate would not reduce her widow’s rate. If your wife starts drawing widow’s benefits prior to FRA, her benefit rate would be reduced for age.

One important thing I should point out, you won’t be able to collect spousal benefits while delaying your own benefits until 70. Only people born prior to 1/2/1954 are allowed to apply for spousal benefits without being required to claim their own benefits at the same time, and even they can only do so if they apply for the spousal benefits at FRA or later. Best, Larry


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