Ask Larry: Should I File And Suspend Before Restricting My Spousal Benefit Application?

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Social Security may be one of your largest assets. What and when you collect will make a huge difference to your lifetime benefits.

Today’s column addresses whether to file and suspend before restricting an application, potentially being deemed to have filed for spousal benefits, when public pensions can affect benefits, eligibility based on two exes’ records and survivor’s benefits after retirement benefits. Larry Kotlikoff is the founder and president of Economic Security Planning, a company that markets Maximize My Social Security, a Social Security benefits calculator referred to in this post.

See more Ask Larry answers here.

Ask Larry about Social Security:

Should I File And Suspend Before Restricting My Spousal Benefit Application?​​

Hi Larry, My birthday is in 1952. Can I file for my Social Security retirement benefits at FRA, suspend them till 70 and restrict my application to just my divorced spousal benefits during the time of suspension? I was married more than 10 years, am currently unmarried, and my ex spouse is 67 and currently collecting Social Security benefits. Thanks, Phil

Hi Phil, You wouldn’t be able to do that but you could file for just divorced spousal benefits only at your full retirement age (FRA) and then file for retirement benefits on your own record at 70. If you instead file for and suspend your own retirement benefits at FRA it would prevent you from being able to receive divorced spousal benefits. You may want to use an expert Social Security benefits calculator, such as Maximize My Social Security or other comprehensive and precise software, to verify which filing strategy is best in your case. Best, Larry

Will My Wife Be Deemed To File For Spousal Benefits Or Can She Wait Until FRA?​​

Hi Larry, My wife is almost three years older than me. I am then larger wage earner and she started collecting her reduced Social Security benefits at 62. I plan to retire in a few more years when I am 62.5. Does my wife have to do the switch to her spousal benefit then when I file for my retirement benefits or can we delay doing so for eight months until she turns 66? Thanks, Marty

Hi Marty, If your wife was born on or after 1/2/1954, she would be forced to file for spousal benefits as soon as you file for your benefits. However, if your wife was born on or before 1/1/1954, she would have the option of waiting until her full retirement age (FRA) to file for unreduced spousal benefits, assuming that she qualifies.

In no case could your wife receive spousal benefits before you start drawing your benefits, though, and she wouldn’t be switching to spousal benefits. Instead, what she could potentially receive as a spouse would be an additional payment that would then be added to her own reduced retirement benefit.

For example, say Sally has a Primary Insurance Amount (PIA), which is equal to her full retirement age (FRA) retirement benefit amount, of $800, but starts drawing her retirement benefits at 62 at a reduced rate of $600. Sally’s husband Bill files for his benefits when Sally is at least FRA. Bill’s PIA is $2,000, so Sally’s spousal benefit would be calculated by subtracting her PIA from 50% of Bill’s PIA, which in this example would result in a spousal rate of $200 (i.e. $2,000 / 2 – $800). That $200 would then be added to Sally’s own reduced rate of $600 to give her a combined rate of $800.

Before filing, you can always use an expert Social Security benefits calculator as described in other answers to compare your options and determine your best strategy. You should also be aware that if you file for reduced benefits yourself, that would limit the benefit rate that your wife could receive as a widow should you die before her. Best, Larry

Will My Public Sector Work Affect My Social Security Benefits?

Hi Larry, I worked as a teaching assistant for four years total and paid into a 414(h) in New York and also paid Social Security taxes while employed there. When we moved to Michigan, the funds paid into the New York retirement fund were rolled over to the teaching assistant job I held in Michigan. Can you shed any light on whether or not this would affect my Social Security retirement benefit or widow’s benefit? Thanks, Jessica

Hi Jessica, If you paid Social Security taxes throughout the time that you worked in the public sector, then it won’t affect either your own retirement benefits nor your widow’s benefits. On the other hand, if any of your public sector work was exempt from Social Security taxes and you receive a pension (or distributions from a retirement fund) based on that work, then your retirement benefit rate could be affected by the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) and your widow’s benefits could be at least partially offset due to the Government Pension Offset (GPO) provision.

You say that you paid Social Security taxes while you worked in the public sector in New York, so that shouldn’t be a problem. Your public sector work would only create an issue with your Social Security benefits if your earnings were exempt from Social Security taxes for any period of time. Best, Larry

Can I Receive Benefits From Both of My Exes If I Have Remarried And Divorced?​​

Hi Larry, I’ve been married and divorced twice. The first time was for eleven years and the second for fifteen. One made significantly more than the other but neither have filed. Both have said they intend to wait at least till FRA if not until 70 to file for their own Social Security retirement benefits. Am I able to receive divorced spousal benefits on one of their records or maybe both, even if not at the same time? Thanks, Miranda

Hi Miranda, Yes, assuming that you meet the requirements for entitlement. In order to qualify for divorced spousal benefits you must be at least age 62 and you must have been married to your ex for at least 10 years. An ex must also be at least age 62 or receiving their benefits in order for you to potentially qualify. You must also be unmarried, but a subsequent marriage(s) would not preclude entitlement as long as the subsequent marriage(s) has ended. Best, Larry

When I Apply For Benefits On My Own Record At Age 70, Will I Still Receive Any Widow’s Benefits?​​

Hi Larry, I’m getting widow’s benefit now after my husband of 40 years died in 2010. I will apply for my own retirement benefit this September when I turn 70. Will I still receive any portion of my widow’s benefit based on my deceased husband’s Social Security work record? Thanks, Kerry

Hi Kerry, I’m sorry for your loss. If your own retirement benefit rate ends up being higher than your widow’s rate, then your widow’s benefits will terminate when you start getting your retirement benefits. However, if your retirement rate is lower than your widow’s rate you would be paid your retirement benefit plus an additional partial widow’s benefit equal to the difference between your widow’s rate and your retirement benefit rate. That would just leave you with the same total benefit amount, and could in fact even drop your monthly payment by $1 due to dollar down rounding of each benefit.

In other words, you will only be able to receive the higher of your widow’s rate or your age 70 retirement rate, and you should probably only file for your retirement benefits if the amount of those benefits is higher than your widow’s rate. Best, Larry

To learn more about your Social Security options, visit Economic Security Planning, Inc.

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