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Ask the Expert: Choosing between 2 Social Security benefits

I filed for Social Security at 70, on Aug. 31, 2020. My wife reaches her full retirement age (FRA) in March 2021. She's ineligible to file a restricted application just for a spousal benefit. This month she received a letter from the Social Security Administration indicating she may qualify for spouse's benefits. If she files for benefits "within 6 months of receipt of this letter" it says, "we will use Aug. 31, 2020, as the filing date." It also states that if she files and then doesn't agree with what the agency decides, she'll be able to appeal the decision. Why can't they just provide the dollar amounts of her own FRA benefit and the spousal benefit and let us decide without making a formal application, which we then might have to appeal?

Your wife doesn't need to apply for Social Security to learn the amounts of the two potential benefits. Your local Social Security office can tell her. She should call that office for a telephone appointment. You'll find the number at by typing in your ZIP code.

Your Aug. 31 application made her eligible for spousal benefits. But whenever she files for Social Security, she'll be applying both for her spousal benefit and her own benefit. She'll receive the bigger amount, not both. (Also, her spousal benefit will be based on your Primary Insurance Amount — the benefit you were entitled to collect at your own FRA. It won't include the extra credits you earned by postponing Social Security to 70.)

Finally, the size of both benefits will depend partly on her age at application. That's why she definitely needs full details before deciding when to apply.

The bottom line

Find out the amount you'll qualify to receive in Social Security before deciding when to apply.

More information

CORRECTION: The deadline for taking the first RMD from an IRA is now age 72, but only for people born after June 30, 1949. The date associated with the age was incorrect in the Dec. 20 column.

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