Social Security Q&A: Am I Eligible for Spousal Benefits?

Commentary by Laurence Kotlikoff

Source: Forbes

Social Security may be your largest or one of your largest assets. How you manage it, by deciding which benefits to collect and when, can make an absolutely huge difference to your lifetime benefits. And those with the highest past covered earnings have the most to gain from maximizing their Social Security.

I’ve been answering questions and writing columns about Social Security each week for the past two years on PBS NEWSHOUR’s website. The editors at Forbes asked me to post a Q&A each day from those columns. To see all my columns, please go to my software company’s site, www.maximizemysocialsecurity.com, and click More Press below the WSJ quote.

Today’s question is about eligibility for spousal benefits and the importance of making sure that Social Security knows your correct marital status.

Question: I am 70 and have been drawing my Social Security benefits since I was 62. My husband is 65 and started drawing his Social Security at age 62. Am I entitled to file for spousal benefits?

Answer: Yes, but your spousal benefit will equal your excess spousal benefit, which is calculated as the difference between half your husband’s full retirement benefit and 100 percent of your full retirement benefit. If this difference is negative, your excess spousal benefit will be zero. I’m assuming that you have told Social Security that you are married and provided them with the documentation they requested to verify your marital status. If this is the case, you should already be receiving your excess spousal benefit, which could well be zero.

Marital history questions are on all applications for monthly benefits, so when you applied for your retirement benefits and when your husband applied for his, you should have been asked if you were married. But Social Security employees are not perfect, so you should certainly call the Social Security office and check to see if you may be eligible for an excess spousal benefit.

Also, if your husband continued to work after you applied for your retirement benefit, it’s possible that his full retirement benefit increased enough to make you now eligible for spousal benefits even if you weren’t when he originally filed.

There is no way other than the marital questions for Social Security to know about someone’s marital history. Social Security only requires verbal confirmation from both spouses, as long as their allegations match the marriage information furnished on their respective applications. A marriage certificate is only required when someone files for widow(er)’s or surviving divorced spouse’s benefits or if there is reason to doubt the couples’ marriage allegations, which is very rare.