Can my wife claim her benefit now and switch to a spouse benefit from me later?

Dear Rusty: Can my wife claim her benefits now (at 63, and we know about the reduction for claiming early) and then, when I retire at 66 years and 10 months of age almost 3 years from now, can she switch over to spousal benefits based on my benefit amount? She worked at a higher paying job for much of her career but is now at a much lower income and would be under the amount that would reduce her benefits further. I currently earn about nine times her annual salary so the spousal benefit for her would be an increase when I retire. Signed: Seeking Information

Dear Seeking: Yes, your wife can claim her own Social Security retirement benefit now, and she will be automatically awarded a spousal boost when you later claim your SS retirement benefit. However, your wife’s benefit when you claim will not be 50 percent of your full retirement age amount because she claimed her own SS benefit early and also because her spousal boost will be awarded prior to her FRA. Any benefit taken before FRA is reduced, including the spousal benefit.

Here’s what will happen if your wife claims her own Social Security at age 63.

  • Your wife’s personal SS retirement benefit, when she claims, will be reduced by about 25 percent.
  • When you claim at your full retirement age, your wife will get a “spousal boost” to her own reduced benefit.
  • The amount of your wife’s spousal boost will be the difference between her FRA entitlement and 50 percent of your FRA entitlement, reduced because the spousal boost will be awarded (automatically) before she has reached her own full retirement age. FRA amounts are used to compute the spousal boost, regardless of the age at which benefits are claimed.
  • When you claim your wife will not yet be her FRA, so the amount of her spousal boost (the difference between her FRA entitlement and half of your FRA entitlement) will be reduced.
  • The reduced spousal boost will be added to your wife’s reduced SS retirement benefit, resulting in her total benefit payment being less than half of yours.

The only way your wife can get the full 50 percent of your FRA entitlement is to wait until her own FRA to claim Social Security, but by doing so she also forfeits the money she would otherwise receive if she claimed her own benefit now. As long as she won’t significantly exceed the earnings limit while working before her FRA, claiming now is an acceptable strategy because it will take many years to recover the money forfeited by waiting until her FRA to claim. It’s also reasonable because women statistically outlive men and your wife’s benefit as your surviving spouse will be 100 percent of the amount you are receiving at your death, instead of the smaller spousal amount she was receiving while you were both living.

When to claim is always a personal choice, and life expectancy should always be thoughtfully considered, but the answer to your specific question is – yes, if your wife claims her own benefit at 63, she will automatically receive her spousal boost when you claim, but her payment as your spouse will be less than 50 percent of your FRA benefit amount.