Ask the Expert: Correction on spousal benefits

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When you apply for Social Security before your When you apply for Social Security before your full retirement age you automatically receive all the benefits for which you are eligible. A married applicant often qualifies for a secondary Social Security benefit based on his or her spouse's work record. Photo Credit: iStock

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Lynn Brenner Lynn Brenner

Brenner answers questions about all aspects of family finance.

Some of the information regarding Social Security benefits in last week's Ask the Expert column was incorrect. The question involved a woman — let's call her Linda — who filed for Social Security at age 63. Her husband — we'll call him Jerry — will apply for his Social Security benefit when he turns 70 in three years. The issue: When he applies for Social Security, can Linda apply for spousal benefits based on his higher earning record? The answer is yes.

When you apply for Social Security before your full retirement age, as Linda did, you automatically receive all the benefits for which you are eligible. A married applicant often qualifies for a secondary Social Security benefit based on his or her spouse's work record. Many variables determine the size of this spousal benefit, but it can never be more than 50 percent of the amount his or her mate would receive at full retirement age. If you're eligible for a spousal benefit as well as your own benefit, you get the greater of the two — not both.

However, you cannot apply for spousal benefits until your mate files for his or her benefit. Since Jerry hadn't yet filed for his benefit when Linda applied for Social Security, her current benefit is based solely on her own earnings. But if she reapplies after he files for his benefit, the amount she receives could change.

Let's say her full retirement benefit would have been $1,000 a month; but since she filed early, she receives $800. If Jerry's benefit at full retirement age is $2,500, her maximum spousal benefit would be $1,250. But in this example, Linda will receive less than the $1,250, even though she'll have reached her full retirement age when she applies for spousal benefits. Here's how her new benefit is calculated: The difference between her 50 percent spousal benefit ($1,250) and her own full retirement benefit if she had waited to collect ($1,000) is $250. That $250 is added to her $800 benefit. Her new benefit is $1,050.

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