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By Philip Moeller
August 4, 2016

Q. My husband (age 70) just started collecting his Social Security. I started mine at 62, and am now 68. I was told when he started collecting that I would get an additional spousal benefit equal to half of what he got minus my existing benefit. His benefit is $2,444 a month, so I thought I should get half, or $1,222, minus my own $110 a month. However, the agency says I actually will get an additional payment of only $612 a month. How can I get half of his like the Social Security person told me I would? Can I stop mine and get half of his instead?Sherian

A.: Your question goes to the heart of why spousal Social Security benefits are so confusing. Believe me, you know more about Social Security than lots of people who ask me questions. But the fact that you have done some homework may only make this more frustrating.

There’s a simple answer to your question of whether to stop your own benefit: No! This would cause you to lose your own payments. You would gain nothing.

Now, I am going to go into the weeds a bit, to get into the complex rules of the spousal Olympics.

When you filed for Social Security, your husband had not yet filed for his retirement benefit. So you weren’t yet eligible for a spousal benefit. You collected based only on your work record—reduced for filing before your full retirement age.

Fast forward six years. Your husband has filed for his own benefit at the age at which Social Security benefits reach their maximum amount. The age-70 benefit is 32% higher than if he had filed at 66, and a whopping 76% higher than if he had filed at age 62, as you did.

His filing enabled you to file for a spousal benefit, which you expected to be half of his retirement benefit. Technically, you would get additional payments equal to your spousal benefit minus the retirement benefit you already were receiving. Social Security calls this an excess spousal benefit.

It is here that you encountered two major Social Security claiming rules that reduced your benefits from what you expected.

The first rule is that spousal benefits are not based on half of what the retired worker is actually receiving from Social Security but on half of what he or she was entitled to receive at full retirement age. This is called, in another bit of agency jargon, the primary insurance amount, or PIA.

Your husband’s PIA would be $1,700 based on his current $2,444 a month. Half of that is $850. Subtracting your existing benefit of $110 from this amount suggests an excess spousal benefit of $740 a month.

That brings us to the second unfavorable reality of Social Security claiming rules for spousal benefits.

Under Social Security rules, the agency doesn’t simply subtract your current benefit from half of your husband’s PIA. Instead, it subtracts your full PIA—before the reduction for early retirement—from half of his PIA.

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I’ve estimated your PIA at $146, since the benefit for someone who starts right at age 62 is about 75% of PIA. That suggests to me that you are entitled to an excess spousal benefit of $850 minus $146, or $704.

My math gets close to the $612 figure that Social Security told you, but there is still a $92 gap. I have asked the agency to explain the discrepancy. Stay tuned.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. He is co-author of the recently updated New York Times bestseller, “Get What’s Yours: The Revised Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security.” His companion book, “Get What’s Yours for Medicare: Maximize Your Coverage; Minimize Your Costs,” will be published this fall. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

 

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