About the ‘Restricted Application for Spousal Benefits Only’

Question: You wrote an article about a man who was collecting spouse benefits but was applying for his own benefit at age 70, under an old law. What are the circumstances surrounding that gentleman’s ability to collect spousal benefits? Why was he eligible? And was he working clear up into the age of 70 before applying for his own Social Security? Signed: An Inquiring Mind

Dear Inquiring Mind: The “old law,” under which the gentleman in the article was collecting only a spousal benefit from his wife, is no longer available to anyone born after Jan. 1, 1954, which means it is largely unavailable to those applying for Social Security today. Here’s how the “old law” worked:

It was once possible for someone who reached their full retirement age of 66, who had not yet applied for their own Social Security, and whose spouse was already collecting SS retirement benefits, to file a “restricted application” to collect only spousal benefits. This enabled a higher earning spouse to claim a spouse benefit (only) without claiming their own SS retirement benefit, thus allowing the latter to continue to grow in value. That resulted in the higher earning spouse collecting half of their spouse’s FRA benefit, at the same time maximizing their personal benefit to be claimed at a later age (usually at age 70).

Such was the case for the gentleman in the article you refer to – his wife had claimed her own SS retirement benefit earlier, and the husband had filed a restricted application for spouse benefits only. The husband collected a spouse benefit from his wife while his own SS retirement benefit continued to grow. Now, as he was turning 70, he was ready to switch to his maximized personal SS retirement benefit. His work status was insignificant because he had already reached his full retirement age when he filed the restricted application, but by delaying the claim for his own SS benefit he earned Delayed Retirement Credits. The DRCs made his personal age 70 benefit 32 percent higher than his benefit would have been had he claimed it at age 66.

This strategy wasn’t documented as a specific option under old Social Security law; rather it was a “loophole” which many took advantage of because Social Security law at the time didn’t prevent it. In other words, Social Security law, as written years ago, allowed anyone who had reached their full retirement age to file a restricted application for spouse benefits without filing for their own benefit. That (along with another option known as “file and suspend”) was considered a loophole and was eliminated by the “deemed filing” provision of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015. The BBA stipulated that those who turned 62 after 2015 (those born after Jan.1, 1954) would, whenever they filed for benefits, be automatically deemed to be filing for all Social Security retirement and spousal benefits available to them at the time. And that essentially eliminated the “restricted application for spouse benefits only” option for anyone born after Jan. 1, 1954. The gentleman in the article was born in 1952, thus eligible to take advantage of the loophole. Today, only those born before Jan. 2, 1954, who are not yet collecting Social Security but have a spouse who is, are eligible.