Today’s column addresses questions about taking spousal benefits before later qualifying for retirement benefits, available recourses in case Social Security mishandled a claim and deciding between taking retirement or survivor’s benefits first. Larry Kotlikoff is a Professor of Economics at Boston University and the founder and president of Economic Security Planning, Inc, which markets Maximize My Social Security and MaxiFi Planner.

See more Ask Larry answers here.

Have Social Security questions of your own you’d like answered? Ask Larry about Social Security here.


Can My Wife Get Social Security Retirement Benefits After Spousal Benefits?

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Hi Larry, My wife is collecting her Social Security spousal benefit from my record and started at age 62 as a reduced benefit. She needed one more quarter she was told before she could get her own retirement benefit. Now she has earned five more quarters. She turns 65 this December. Will she be able to collect her retirement benefit if it’s higher? Or will she just stay on her spousal benefit? Thanks, Daniel

Hi Daniel, Yes, your wife could claim her own retirement benefits if she now has at least 40 quarters (QC) of Social Security covered work. She would then be paid essentially the higher of her own rate or her spousal rate. But if her own rate is lower than her spousal rate, she’d be paid her own benefit plus an excess spousal benefit. The two benefits would then add up her current spousal rate, but she might end up getting $1 less per month in total due to dollar down rounding..

Since your wife was born after 1/1/1954, when she filed for spousal benefits she was deemed to also be filing for her own Social Security retirement benefits. Therefore, she’s effectively already filed for her own retirement benefits, but Social Security would still need her to complete an additional application to establish her entitlement. Because of deeming, your wife doesn’t have any option on when to start her retirement benefits, which would automatically start in the first month after her spousal application was filed and she met the 40 QC requirement.

I don’t know if Social Security will recognize the fact that your wife is now insured for her own benefits unless she contacts them. If her own benefit rate would be higher than her current spousal rate, though, it sounds like she would probably want to file an application for her benefits as soon as possible. Best, Larry


What Recourses Do I Have If Social Security Mishandled My Claim?

Hi Larry, A few days after my 66th birthday, I applied for spousal benefits. After waiting for an interview for two months, I was told by the Social Security administrator that I would be approved for spousal benefits of a certain amount. Yesterday, they approved me for my retirement benefit amount — more than $300 less — but they marked it as spousal benefits. What are my recourses? Thanks, Emily

Hi Emily, My answer assumes that Social Security erroneously awarded you retirement benefits rather than spousal benefits. In that case, you should be able to call this error to the attention of the Social Security representative who handled your claim and have them straighten it out. Another option would be to file an appeal, but that may just delay resolving your problem if your application wasn’t completed properly. If your application didn’t properly restrict its scope to spousal benefits only, then you’d likely need to withdraw the application. You may also need to re-apply for spousal benefits depending on the specific circumstances involved.

If I were you I would start out by trying to reach the representative who processed your claim. If you don’t have a contact person’s name, you could try explaining the problem to one of Social Security’s phone representatives and ask to be connected with the person who handled your claim. They wouldn’t be able to connect you directly, but they may be able to message the person so that they could re-contact you. Or, you could try asking to speak with a technical expert or supervisor in the office that processed your claim.

If the error isn’t corrected, you have up to 60 days from the date of your award letter to file an appeal. It may be easier, though, to withdraw your claim and re apply for spousal benefits only. If you do end up withdrawing and re filing, you should do so within six months of the month you reached full retirement age (FRA). You can only claim unreduced spousal benefits for a maximum of six months retroactively from the month you apply.

On the other hand though, if Social Security awarded you spousal benefits and not retirement benefits, and if the only problem involved is the amount of the benefit awarded, then the proper recourse would be to file an appeal. You have up to 60 days from the date of your award letter to file an appeal. Best, Larry


Which Benefit Should I File For First?

Hi Larry, My husband passed away in 2007. He was 60 and I was 48. I am now 60 and I’ve retired from my job. I can take my Social Security widow’s benefit at a reduced rate of 71.5% ($1,616) at 60 and take my retirement benefit ($1,892) at 70. Or I can take my retirement benefit at 62 ($1,076) and then take my widow’s benefit at full retirement age ($2,172).

I’m not even sure I can take retirement benefit first and then transfer to my widow’s benefit. The Social Security office told me I could not, but I’ve read differently. Also, I’ve heard that if he was on active duty before 1968, I can bring his DD 214 and that could increase my widow’s benefit. I was told I didn’t need it; that it was already included in the amounts Social Security has — is that true? Also, I see there’s something called WINDEX. Can you explain that? Thanks, Maria

Hi Maria, I’m sorry for your loss.

If $1,892 is your own projected benefit rate if you wait until 70 to start drawing and if $2,172 is your potential unreduced widow’s rate, then your best option would likely be to file for your own benefits at 62 and then file for unreduced widow’s benefits at your full retirement age (FRA). That way, once you start drawing your widow’s benefits you’ll be receiving your highest possible monthly benefit rate for as long as you live. But you may want to use my company’s software — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — to run your numbers so that you can decide for yourself. Social Security calculators provided by other companies or non-profits may provide proper suggestions if they were built with extreme care.

When a person is potentially eligible for both Social Security retirement and widow(er)’s benefits, it’s generally a good plan to start out drawing the lower benefit first and then switch to the higher benefit when it reaches its highest rate. The earliest that you can draw your own retirement benefits is 62, and your FRA for widow’s benefits would be when your widow’s benefits would reach their highest rate. If you were born in 1959 your widow’s benefit FRA would be 66 and 6 months, but if you were born in 1960 then your widow’s benefit FRA would be 66 and 8 months.

If you start out drawing your retirement benefits first, you won’t “transfer” to just drawing a widow’s benefit at FRA. Instead, when you reach FRA you can file for an unreduced partial, or excess, widow’s benefit equal to the difference in your full widow’s rate and your retirement rate. That partial widow’s benefit would then be paid in addition to your retirement benefit, giving you a monthly rate equal to the higher full widow’s rate (i.e. $2,172 per your figures).

WINDEX is an alternate method of computing widow’s benefits that can be used in cases where the deceased worker died prior to the year they would have reached 62. Basically, when calculating the WINDEX rate, Social Security indexes the worker’s historical earnings based on the year the widow reaches 60. In the normal computation method, a worker’s historical earnings are indexed based on the earlier of either the year the worker reaches 60, or two years prior to their year of death. WINDEX computations generally yield a higher widow’s rate if average wages outpaced cost of living increases during the period of time between the worker’s death and the year the widow(er) reaches 60.

Your widow’s rate will be calculated using both the normal computation method and the WINDEX method, and then the higher of those two rates will be selected by Social Security’s computer. Our software is also fully programed to handle both regular and WINDEX computations.

When you do end up applying for widow’s benefits, if your husband had active military service prior to 1968 you should submit proof of his service (e.g. form DD-214) to Social Security. In spite of what you were apparently told, deemed military wages didn’t start being credited automatically until 1968. In order to get deemed military wage credits for years prior to 1968, Social Security needs to see proof of the person’s active duty. Best, Larry