Social Security benefits can provide you with a stream of retirement income that is reliable. Deciding when to take benefits is an important question, especially if you’re married and hope to qualify for spousal benefits. If you’re already taking Social Security, you might be wondering if it’s possible to switch to a spousal benefit later. The answer depends on whether your spouse is receiving Social Security benefits yet.
A financial advisor can help you figure out what you qualify for and when the best time is for you to start taking benefits as part of your full retirement plan.
How Do Social Security Spousal Benefits Work?
Calculating Social Security benefits as a married couple is a bit different than doing it as a single person. When someone files for Social Security benefits, their spouse may be able to claim a spousal benefit. The benefit is based on their spouse’s contributions to Social Security and is capped at 50% of their benefit amount at full retirement age. For example, if they were to receive $2,200 per month at full retirement age, their spousal benefit would max out at $1,100 per month.
In order to receive spousal Social Security benefits, you must:
Be at least 62, the earliest age at which you can receive Social Security benefits OR
Be a caretaker for a child under age 16 or a child who’s receiving Social Security disability benefits
Be married for at least one year to someone who has filed for their retirement benefits
When you apply for spousal benefits, the Social Security Administration calculates your benefits based on your own work and earnings record as well. If you’re eligible to receive your retirement benefit as well as spousal benefits, then you’d get the higher of the two.
If your spouse hasn’t filed for retirement yet, then you can’t get spousal benefits. You can, however, file for your own retirement benefits if you’re at least 62 years old.
Taking Social Security at age 62 will reduce your benefit amount, below the amount you’d be entitled to if you had waited until you reached full retirement age. Delaying benefits until age 70, on the other hand, increases your benefit amount.
If you’re claiming spousal benefits and filing before your full retirement age, then your benefit amount would be roughly 30% instead of 50%. The only exception is if you’re claiming spousal benefits and you’re a caretaker for a child under 16 or a child with disabilities.
Can I Switch My Social Security Benefit to a Spousal Benefit?
Switching from your regular retirement benefit to a spousal benefit is something you might be interested in if you’re hoping to maximize Social Security benefits. Whether you can make this switch is determined by whether your spouse is already receiving benefits.
If your spouse is not receiving any retirement benefits yet, then you could technically take your regular Social Security benefit as early as age 62. When your spouse files for their benefit later you could switch to spousal benefits. That could potentially increase the total amount of benefits you receive as a couple if they’re waiting until age 70 to start taking benefits.
What if your spouse is already receiving their Social Security benefits? In that situation, the deemed filing rule applies. That rule dictates that when someone applies for their regular retirement benefit, they’re also approved for spousal benefits if they’re entitled to receive them. So again, you’d get the higher amount of the two.
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Deemed Filing and Spousal Benefits
The Social Security Administration implemented the deemed filing rule to prevent double-dipping. Prior to the rule, if spousal benefits were higher than an individual benefit, the person could receive a combination of benefits equal to the higher benefit. Deemed filing keeps spouses from receiving one type of retirement benefit while also benefiting from delaying another type of benefit.
There are some exceptions to this rule, which would still allow you to apply for spousal benefits independent of your own retirement benefit. You might be eligible for an exception if you:
Were born before January 2, 1954
Are caring for a child under 16 or a child with disabilities
Are eligible for Social Security disability benefits
If you’ve already taken your retirement benefits and your spouse is receiving a spousal benefit, they can opt to switch over to their retirement benefit instead if they were born before January 2, 1954. In that situation, you could then apply for an additional spousal benefit on top of your regular benefit once their benefits kick in.
When Should You Claim Spousal Benefits?
Timing matters when deciding when to claim spousal benefits. Again, taking benefits before full retirement age can reduce the number of benefits that you’re eligible to receive. However, delaying spousal benefits beyond full retirement age won’t increase the benefit amount, the way that it would regular retirement benefits.
When deciding how to time spousal benefits or retirement benefits, it helps to look at the bigger picture and consider:
Life expectancies and how long you and your spouse anticipate relying on Social Security benefits
Health and the possibility of one or both of you needing long-term care at some point
Retirement budget and estimated expenses
Living longer, for example, might make delaying Social Security benefits more attractive. On the other hand, if you don’t have sufficient savings and investments then you might need the additional income that Social Security can provide sooner rather than later.
If you’re confused about when to take spousal benefits or whether you can switch your retirement benefit to spousal benefits, talking to a financial advisor can help. An advisor who’s well-versed in Social Security planning can help you to decide on the right time to claim those benefits.
The Bottom Line
It’s possible to switch your Social Security retirement benefit to spousal benefits if your spouse hasn’t filed yet. Whether it makes sense to do so can depend on your current ages and the ages at which each of you filed for benefits.
As a general rule of thumb, the longer you can delay filing for Social Security the better, as it can result in a larger benefit amount.
Retirement Planning Tips
Consider talking to your financial advisor about switching from your retirement benefit to spousal benefits if your spouse has plans to claim their own benefits. If you don’t have a financial advisor yet, finding one doesn’t have to be difficult. With SmartAsset’s free tool, matches you with up to three financial advisors who serve your area, and you can interview your advisor matches at no cost to decide which one is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
Talking to your advisor can also help you to come up with a strategy for coordinating Social Security alongside other sources of income, such as a pension plan, annuity, 401(k) or government retirement benefits. Deciding when to tap into each income stream can affect your tax situation so it’s important to understand the best order for drawing down assets. An advisor can also offer advice on how to claim Social Security benefits as an ex-spouse if you’re now divorced.
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