Brenner answers questions about all aspects of family finance.
I'm 62 years old and plan to apply for Social Security now based on my own work record. In six years, my husband will be 66 and apply for his much bigger benefit. Can I then switch to a spousal benefit equal to 50 percent of the amount he receives? Or will my spousal benefit be smaller because I applied early for my own benefit? We've received conflicting answers to this question.
When you apply at 62, you'll only be filing for your own benefit based on your work record. You can't yet apply for a spousal benefit because your husband hasn't yet applied for Social Security. After he does, you can file for a spousal benefit. But because you applied early for your own benefit, your spousal benefit will be less than 50 percent of what your husband gets.
Let's say your husband's benefit is $2,500. Your maximum spousal benefit is 50 percent of that, or $1,250. If you waited to file for your own benefit at 66 -- your full retirement age -- you'd get $1,000, but at 62, you'll get $750. In six years, when you're 68 -- after your husband starts collecting his benefit -- you'll file for a spousal benefit.
Here's how the Social Security Administration determines the spousal benefit to pay you: It subtracts your $1,000 full retirement benefit from your maximum potential $1,250 spousal benefit. The result is $250. The agency will add $250 to your discounted $750 benefit. Your new benefit check will be for $1,000.
The calculation is exactly the same if you wait until full retirement age to collect your own benefit, explains Linda Lauria, a Social Security Administration spokeswoman: The agency subtracts your PIA from your spousal benefit and gets the same $250 result. But in that scenario, the $250 would be added to your unreduced $1,000 benefit, so you'd receive $1,250 -- 50 percent of your husband's benefit.
The bottom line: An early application for Social Security reduces your potential spousal benefit.