When should my wife claim her Social Security benefit?

Dear Rusty: I just saw an article which said that certain spousal options were going away, but there are still good options for when a spouse can claim. I am filing for my Social Security to start in October when I turn 70. My wife’s full retirement age is in December, and she now plans to file then for half of what my FRA benefit would have been (our original plan was for both to file in August). My wife’s main reason for delaying until her FRA is to lock her into my maximum benefit if she has to someday change to Survivor’s Benefit. Will this be gone for us? Neither of us was born before January 1, 1954. Please advise. Signed: Planning for Both

Dear Planning: I expect that the article you refer to was speaking of the option to claim only a spousal benefit first and allow one’s personal SS retirement benefit to grow. That option was available only to those who were born before 1954 and had reached full retirement age. As you now know that option is not available to you.

Assuming your wife’s highest benefit entitlement will be as your spouse, your current strategy – you claim your maximum benefit to start in October at age 70 and your wife starts her benefit in December at her FRA – is a good one which will yield the maximum possible monthly benefit for both of you. But for clarity, your wife’s survivor benefit as your widow has nothing to do with when she claims her spouse benefits now.

The only thing which will affect your wife’s benefit as your surviving spouse is her age when she claims the survivor benefit. If she has already reached her FRA of 66 years and 8 months when you pass, she will get 100 percent of the amount you were receiving when you died, instead of the smaller spousal amount she was receiving while you were living. Her survivor benefit would only be less than 100 percent of yours if she claimed it before reaching her full retirement age (which, of course, we hope would not to be the case).

Just so you have the complete picture, your wife could, if desired, claim her Social Security to start at the same time as you in October but, since that would be earlier than her FRA, the amount she would get would be less than 50 percent of your FRA entitlement. Her spouse benefit would be reduced by 0.694 percent for each month earlier than her FRA it starts. For example, if your wife starts her spousal benefit in October when your benefit starts, she will get about 98.6 percent of the amount she would get if she waited until December to start her benefits. That’s a permanent reduction, so if your wife’s life expectancy is at least average (about 87), it’s likely still wisest for her to wait until her FRA to start benefits. But in any case, when your wife claims her spousal benefit now will have no effect on the survivor benefit she will get as your future widow.