I’m getting spouse benefits – what happens to my own?

Question: I was born in late 1951. When I retired 5 years ago, I was made aware that my own Social Security benefit was less than half of my husband’s SS Benefit. So, I chose to take half of his. What happens to my undispensed SS dollars? On the off chance the balance increases beyond the amount I am now collecting, can I eventually switch to my own full SS amount? Signed: Curious Senior

Dear Curious Senior: Much depends on exactly how you claimed your SS benefits five years ago and your age when you claimed. Because you were born in 1951, if you had reached your full retirement age of 66 when you claimed SS five years ago and your husband was already collecting his benefits, you had the option to file a “restricted application for spousal benefits only” which would have enabled you to collect only your spouse benefit while letting your own benefit continue to grow. But if you were not yet 66 when you claimed, the “restricted application” wasn’t available to you, so you are now receiving your own benefit plus an additional amount to bring your payment to your spousal amount.

I expect that the latter is the case (that you didn’t file a “restricted application”), which would mean that your current payment amount consists of two parts – your personal benefit (from your own lifetime work record) plus a “spousal boost” to bring your payment to your spousal entitlement. Except for the restricted application, Social Security always pays your own benefit amount first and then supplements your own benefit with an additional amount to give you what you’re entitled to as a spouse. Thus, your personal benefits aren’t “undispensed” – you’re already getting them, plus a spousal supplement.

Just to complete the picture, if you did file a “restricted application” at age 66, then your own benefit continued to grow until you were 70 (at which point it reached maximum). The growth amount would have been 8 percent per year additional benefit, so at age 70 your own benefit would have been 32 percent more than your FRA amount. If you know what your own FRA benefit amount was, then increase that by 32 percent to see if your own amount is now higher and, if so, contact Social Security to apply for your own higher benefit.

If you don’t know what your personal FRA amount was and/or are uncertain if you filed a restricted application, you’ll need to contact Social Security directly to see if you’re entitled to any additional amount based on your own lifetime work record. You can contact Social Security at either the national centerat  (800) 772-1213 or at your local office (find the number at www.ssa.gov/locator). If you are currently getting spouse benefits only under a restricted application and your personal benefit is now higher, since you’ll soon be 71 you should request six months of retroactive benefits when you switch from the restricted application to your own benefit.