How to Delay Your Social Security and Get the Most for Your Spouse

BY Paul Solman  December 31, 2012 at 11:50 AM EST


Blank Social Security checks are run through a printer at the U.S. Treasury printing facility. Photo by William Thomas Cain via Getty Images

Larry Kotlikoff’s Social Security original 34 “secrets”, his additional secrets, his Social Security “mistakes” and his Social Security gotchas have prompted so many of you to write in that we now feature “Ask Larry” every Monday. We are determined to continue it until the queries stop or we run through the particular problems of all 78 million Baby Boomers, whichever comes first. Kotlikoff’s state-of-the-art retirement software is available here, for free, in its “basic” version

Robert Mesa — Arizona: I am 63 and do not plan to file at least until I reach full retirement age (66). My wife is 60 and started receiving disability benefits four years ago due to a health condition. Her benefit amount is approximately one third of which I will be eligible for at full retirement. Is there a strategy by which we can increase her benefit while I delay taking my benefit?

Larry Kotlikoff: When you reach full retirement age, you can file for, but then suspend collection of, your retirement benefit. You can then activate your retirement benefit at age 70, when it will be set to its largest value. This will enable her to collect a spousal benefit starting at age 62. But it will be a reduced one unless she waits until full retirement age.

Thamara Stephenson — Gainesville, Fla: At 62 I was told that if I wait until 66 I can get my ex-husband’s Social Security. If he is dead at that time, I would get the full amount. Is that whether or not his present wife is alive? Through his, I can get more than on my Social Security.

Larry Kotlikoff: Yes, his present wife doesn’t affect your rights to spousal and survivor benefits. If you wait until 66 — i.e., you don’t apply for your own retirement benefit before 66 (your full retirement age) — you’ll get half of his full retirement benefit. Once he dies (now don’t kill him!), you’ll get 100 percent of the benefit he was collecting at the time he died if he was collecting. If he wasn’t collecting when he died, you’ll get his full retirement benefit if he dies before full retirement age. Or you’ll get his full retirement benefit, augmented for the delayed retirement credit, if he dies after his full retirement age.

Donna Hagen — Minnesota: My husband of eight years died of cancer in 2004. My first husband and father of my children and I were married 31 years. Can I collect off my first husband also? I worked outside the home while he played around in his truck. (Hence, a divorce after 31 years.) Would I be eligible to collect off of him?

Larry Kotloikoff: Very sorry for your loss. You can collect based on either deceased spouse, as far as I understand, but only one of them. Which one will depend on which one’s earnings record provides you the highest benefits. On the other hand, if you earned much more than either, your total check may not be higher if you take your retirement benefits at the same time you apply for your survivor benefits. The best strategy may be to wait until you reach full retirement, apply just for your survivor benefit, and then at 70 apply for your highest possible retirement benefit. Our $40 software program can help sort out what’s best to do here.

George — Honolulu: For most of my adult life, I have lived and worked for non-U.S. companies in foreign countries. As a result, I have paid little into the Social Security system and, according to a letter I recently received from the Social Security Administration, I have 32-plus credits but need 40 credits to receive benefits. Is there any way that I can accrue the required credits before I retire (I am 62 now and hope to retire in the next few years)?

Larry Kotlikoff: Yes, work for two more years and get the extra 8 quarters of credits.

Carolyn — Flower Mound, Texas: How can I find out how much is awarded for SSDI? My husband is about to apply.

Larry: Your local Social Security office should be able to help you with this.

Nathan Bothell — Washington: When mom and stepfather got divorced after 12 years of marriage, she signed the divorce papers that she would not claim any of his money. But from what I understand, if you are married for at least 10 years, you are entitled to Social Security from that marriage.

Larry Kotlikoff: They were married for 10 years, so she’s eligible for spousal benefits as an ex as well as survivor benefits once your stepfather dies.

Joyce Davis — Riverside, Calif: I am six years older than my ex-husband. We were married seventeen years. I started receiving Social Security when I reached 65 in 2010. My question is, will I be able to claim on his Social Security when he retires and how can I find out when he retires which will probably not be until 2019 (presuming I am still alive)?

Larry Kotlikoff: You can collect spousal benefits right now and, I presume, Social Security is already providing them to you if you qualify for them, so long as your full retirement benefit is less than half of his. When he chooses to retire has nothing to do with your eligibility to collect spousal benefits right now, provided he is over age 62. Once he dies, you’ll also be eligible to collect survivor benefits.

Joe — Lakewood, Colo.: I am 62, and I was married for 12 years. My ex spouse is 54. I lost my job making $120,000 per year however I think I can get by on savings plus social security. Is it possible to claim a Social Security benefit on my ex wife’s work history? She is still working and makes about $90,000 per year. If yes, do I have to wait until she retires?

Larry Kotlikoff: Yes, you can collect a spousal benefit on your ex, but you have to wait, not until she retires, but until she reaches age 62. If she passes away, you can collect a survivor benefit starting immediately.

Jan Van — Snowflake, Ariz: My brother recently passed due to an accident. His only survivor is my sister and myself. Is there a survivor benefit toward his burial?

Larry Kotlikoff: There is a small funeral benefit that Social Security should provide.

Joan Brownstein — Greenbrae, Calif: How do I apply to get excess spousal Social Security?

Larry Kotlikoff: Go to the local Social Security office.

Joe F — Portland, Ore.: I am single. I retired at 50 and stopped working completely. I am living off my pension, IRA, 403(b) for past 10 years. I noticed I no longer qualify for disability. That’s OK, but if I’ve maxed out on contributions, will my Social Security be hurt by not contributing for 10 years?

Larry Kotlikoff: Not necessarily, because a different benefit formula is used for disability insurance benefits. Your DI benefit becomes your retirement benefit when you reach full retirement age.

Happy New Year, everyone.

This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown — NewsHour’s blog of news and insight.