​​​​​​Can My Wife Get Spousal Benefits Before I File?

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 the availability of spousal benefits, ramifications of collecting divorced spousal benefits, Canadian pension effects on Social Security benefits, survivor benefits and contesting an SSA ruling. 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:

Can My Wife Get Spousal Benefits Before I File?​​

Hi Larry, My wife turned 62 before the change date of the new rules regarding suspending a Social Security retirement benefit. Our strategy has always been for her to restrict her application to spousal benefits only when she turns 66. To do this, it is my understanding that I would would need to file for my Social Security retirement benefits at the same time. Is that correct? Could she file earlier?Thanks, Cal

Hi Cal, Yes, you would need to be drawing your retirement benefits in order for your wife to qualify for spousal benefits. And no, your wife could not file a restricted application for spousal benefits only prior to her full retirement age (FRA) of 66. You and your wife might want to use an expert Social Security benefits calculator as described in other answers prior to filing in order to be sure that you choose the best overall filing strategy. Best, Larry

What Would Happen If I Tried To Collect On My Ex-Wife’s Record?​​

Hi Larry, I like your book, (Get What’s Yours Revised! I will be 62 soon and my ex-wife will turn 62 in July 2018. I worked in private industry until age 52 and for the past nine years have been working for a city government where I don’t pay into Social Security. I expect to continue working until 72 at which time I will look to retire. If I I filed for divorced spousal benefits, would I be subject to the earnings test?, Also, would I be considered as having filed for my own benefit but then be locked into the benefit level of my ex-spouse forever instead of the much higher one I’d get when I reached age 70? Or should I just wait until my FRA of 66 & 4 months to claim against my ex-spouse? Thanks, Sal

Hi Sal, Since you were born after 1/1/1954, you’ll never be able to apply for divorced spousal benefits without also filing for your own retirement benefits. You could only be paid the higher of those 2 rates, and a) your benefit rate will be reduced for age if you start drawing before your full retirement age (FRA), and b) your benefits prior to FRA could be subject to withholding based on the Social Security earnings test. All of that is true whether or not you voluntarily suspend your own retirement benefits when you reach FRA. So, assuming that your Primary Insurance Amount (PIA), which is equal to your full retirement age (FRA) retirement benefit amount, is more than 50% of your ex’s PIA, you could never be paid divorced spousal benefits as long as your ex is living.

It may be best for you to wait until age 70 to start drawing your benefits if possible, since that’s when your retirement rate will reach it’s highest point. However, your actual best strategy depends on a number of different variables. It also sounds like your benefit rate may be adversely affected by the WEP provision. if you receive a pension based on your city government work. Best, Larry

Why Am I Subject To The WEP Provision?​​

Hi Larry, I am a Canadian citizen and resident receiving Canada pension benefits from working there. I also worked part time in the US for 18 years paying US Social Security and Medicare payments. This entitled me to a small pension from US Social Security. However the amount has been substantially reduced due to the WEP. Why should that be when clearly I would never have paid US taxes on my Canadian earnings but do not see why the WEP should apply since I am not a US citizen. Thanks, Brent

Hi Brent, The stated purpose of the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) is to prevent people from receiving a higher benefit rate than is commensurate with their earnings history. One of the ‘social’ aspects of Social Security is that benefit rates are skewed to pay people with relatively low lifetime earnings a bigger payback on their contributions than the rate paid to higher earners. The belief is that these lower earners would need the higher return in order to be able to support themselves in their retirement years. In 1983, Congress decided that it was unfair to pay this ‘windfall’ to people who had low Social Security covered earnings solely due to the fact that some or most of their earnings were exempt from Social Security taxes because they were contributing to a non-covered pension plan, so they enacted WEP. Your citizenship and residency don’t come into play in determining whether or not WEP applies. Best, Larry

How Do I Get The Back Payments Due Me?​​

Hi Larry, My husband passed away in 2014 and the next day I called the Boise Social Security office to ask about receiving widow’s benefits. At the time I was 63 and they said I wasn’t eligible for widow’s benefits. In August 2016, I was in a Social Security office, in Minneapolis to inquire about my own Social Security retirement benefits and thought I would ask about the widow’s benefits again. They gave me information about my own upcoming benefits but again when I inquired about widow’s benefits they told me I wasn’t eligible. Then in October 2017 I had another appointment with the Social Security office this time in Boise. I actually was inquiring about my own benefits and they mentioned that I was eligible for widows benefits. I was shocked and asked why they didn’t tell me that back in, 2014 just after my husband had died when I had called in to inquire then. No explanation. Then I asked why they told me again at the Minneapolis office that I wasn’t qualified for widow’s benefits. No explanation. I feel that I should be paid past due widows benefits going to my husband’s death date and my first inquiry. I also have witness’ who will write on my behalf to acknowledge that I made these previous inquiries. How do I get the back payments due me? Thanks, Denise

Hi Denise, I’m sorry for your loss. You don’t mention whether or not you were still working when you spoke with Social Security in 2014 and 2016, so I don’t know for sure whether or not you would be due any back pay. If you were still working and had earnings significantly in excess of the Social Security earnings test exempt amount it’s possible that no benefits could have been paid to you, which could explain why you were told that you weren’t entitled to benefits.

In any case, though, if you weren’t earning too much to be eligible for past benefits, you will likely need to establish to Social Security’s satisfaction that you were misinformed by an official source. You would certainly want to submit signed statements from your witnesses describing their knowledge of your previous contacts with Social Security as part of your corroborating evidence. Whether or not you can or could have been paid sooner, you’ll want to be sure that you choose the best possible filing strategy. Depending on your circumstances, it may be best for you to a) file for reduced retirement benefits on your own record first and then file for unreduced widow’s benefits at your full retirement age, or b) file for widow’s benefits first and switch to your own record at age 70. Best, Larry

What Can I Do?​​

Hi Larry, I have retired and was under extreme duress, and it was necessary to do so. I applied for my Social Security retirement benefit and went to Social Security office sat for 2 hrs and when I got to see a very nice young man. He pointed out that in 1968 when my mother took me to get my card for the first time she had to submit my birth certificate. There is an incorrect date for my year of birth. So now I have to wait until I get a birth certificate which at this time will take another 3 months to get. What can I do . I am about to lose my house and my bills are so behind. Thanks, Pattie

Hi Pattie, The only preferred evidence of age that Social Security could accept in lieu of a birth certificate would be a religious record (e.g. baptismal certificate). If that’s unavailable, Social Security could only use other types of age evidence if your state of birth determines that no record of your birth exists.

Do you have any relatives living near a vital records office in Pennsylvania who could pick up a copy of your birth certificate in person? Their website (http://www.health.pa.gov/myrecords/certificates/pages/11596.aspx#.WiKgB6…) says that birth certificates can be obtained by a relative, attorney or POA.

Meanwhile, you may have better filing options available to you other than filing for reduced benefits on your own record. You may want to run an expert Social Security benefits calculator, such as Maximize My Social Security or another rigorously accurate program, in order to explore your filing options and determine your most advantageous strategy. Best Larry

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

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