When should my wife claim Social Security?

Question: My wife will be 65 next year, and her full retirement age is 66 years plus 10 months. Can she collect 50 percent of my Social Security benefit at her full retirement age and then get her own higher personal amount at age 70? Her own amount at her full retirement age is $1,100 per month but her age 70 amount is $1,800. My Social Security is $2,300. Suggestions welcome. Signed: My Wife’s Helper

Dear Helper: Your wife cannot separate her spousal benefit from her personal Social Security retirement benefit – whenever she claims she will be automatically deemed to be filing for both her own benefit and her spousal entitlement. Thus, she cannot claim her spousal benefit first at her full retirement age and defer claiming her own SS retirement benefit until she is 70. When your wife should claim is, essentially, a decision which should consider the urgency of her need for the money, her life expectancy, whether she will be eligible for a spouse benefit from you, and whether she is working.

If your wife claims before her full retirement age and is working, she’ll be subject to Social Security’s “earnings test” which limits how much she can earn before some SS benefits are taken away (Social Security’s earnings test goes away at FRA).

Average life expectancy for a woman your wife’s age is about 87. If your current $2,300 benefit is a result of you taking your Social Security at your full retirement age or earlier, then your wife will receive a small “spousal boost” from you. If she claims at her full retirement age, your wife’s total Social Security payment will be 50 percent of the amount you were entitled to at your FRA and that will be her permanent amount, except for annual COLA increases. However, from what you’ve shared, your wife’s age 70 amount is considerably more than her maximum spousal benefit so, if her life expectancy is long, that suggests she may wish to consider waiting until age 70 to claim her own maximum benefit. By doing so, your wife will get more in cumulative lifetime benefits if she achieves average life expectancy.

The unknown factor is your life expectancy because, as your widow, your wife will be entitled to 100 percent of the amount you were receiving at your death, instead of the smaller amount she is receiving on her own or as your spouse. If life expectancy is long for both of you, then your wife maximizing her own benefit by waiting until age 70 to claim is a prudent choice. But if your, or your wife’s, life expectancy is shorter, then your wife claiming at her full retirement age would be a better decision.