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Ask the Expert: Know the ins and outs of Social Security spousal benefits

My wife is 62, and I am 58. I'll apply for Social Security at 67. Can my wife apply now for her benefit based on her own record, and switch to her spousal benefit after I apply?

Yes. But the switch may yield less than you hope.

If she applies now for her own benefit, her spousal benefit won't be part of the application, since she won't qualify for it until you take Social Security. But applying early for her own benefit will automatically reduce the size of her future spousal benefit.

She should ask your local Social Security office to crunch the numbers based on both your work records and tell her how the age at which she takes her own benefit will affect the amount she'd later be entitled to collect as a spouse.

I'm 69, and my wife is 62. I took Social Security at 64½. Can my wife claim a spousal benefit now? I understand she won't receive half of what I would have collected at my full retirement age, but can she collect half of what I received when I first claimed Social Security?

The age at which you took Social Security is irrelevant. It's your wife's age when she applies for her spousal benefit that determines whether that benefit is reduced.

If she delays her application until she's 66½ (her full retirement age), she'll qualify for half the benefit you'd have collected at your full retirement age (known in Social Security jargon as your Primary Insurance Amount, or PIA), plus any interim cost-of-living adjustments. If she applies at 62, she'll get 32.5 percent of your PIA plus adjustments.

The bottom line

Your spousal benefit depends on your age when you apply for Social Security, not your spouse's age.

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