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Ask the Expert: How does Social Security disability affect spousal benefits?

I'm retired and collecting Social Security. My wife is 63 years old and currently collects Social Security disability. Can she apply for a spousal benefit based on my work record now, or must she wait until she's 66?

She can apply now, but at 63 her spousal benefit will be smaller than if she waits until she reaches her full retirement age. That's important — because the application won't actually increase her monthly Social Security income unless her spousal benefit exceeds her disability benefit. She can't collect both. She can only receive the larger amount.

A person must meet four requirements to collect a spousal benefit: 1) She’s at least 62 years old; 2) her spouse is already collecting Social Security; 3) they have been married at least one year; 4) her spousal benefit is bigger than the one based on her own work record.

Your wife's current disability benefit is the amount she would have received at her full retirement age based on her own work record. Let's say her disability check is for $500 a month. And let's say your full retirement benefit is $1,800. At age 62, she will qualify for a spousal benefit equal to 37.5 percent of your full retirement age benefit. In this example, that's $675. The upshot: She would be entitled to a $175 increase in her monthly Social Security income.

If she were collecting her own retirement benefit, the $175 would simply be added to her monthly check. But Social Security Administration spokeswoman Linda Lauria says that since she collects a disability benefit, your wife would get two monthly checks. She would continue receiving her current $500 check, which is paid by the Social Security Disability Fund; and she would receive a second check for $175 from the Social Security Retirement Fund.

The bottom line

When you qualify for two Social Security benefits, you receive an amount equal to the larger benefit.

More information

ssa.gov/planners/retire/applying6.html

ssa.gov/planners/retire/retirechart.html

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