How to Calculate the Social Security Supplemental Spouse Benefit

A client recently asked me: “Should I claim my modest Social Security retirement benefit early, say at 62, and then switch to my larger spousal benefit later on?” This question shows a serious misunderstanding of the relationship between retirement benefits and spousal benefits.

One can never switch from retirement benefits to spousal benefits. If a person is receiving retirement benefits (or they have filed and suspended receipt of those benefits), then the spousal benefit becomes a supplemental benefit, not a substitute benefit.  In other words, when a person is eligible for both retirement and spousal benefits, the Social Security Administration first calculates their retirement benefit, and then adds their spousal supplement. While this distinction may appear trivial, it can nevertheless have significant implications for Social Security claiming decisions, as I will show below.

Just to keep things reasonably simple, I limit the following discussion to those circumstances in which a person claims retirement benefits early and then claims spousal benefits at their full retirement age (FRA).  Note that if a person claims retirement benefits before FRA and they are eligible for spousal benefits at the time of claiming, then the SSA “deems” that both benefits are being claimed. So, the case I discuss here applies only to those who could not claim spousal benefits at the time they claim retirement benefits.  A person cannot claim spousal benefits unless their spouse has claimed his or her own retirement benefits. (This restriction does not apply to ex-spousal benefits, but that is a topic for another time.)

Let’s look at an example to see how this works. Consider a hypothetical couple: Karen and Burt, who are both 62. Karen’s retirement benefit at age 66, her full retirement age (FRA), is $400 a month. Burt’s age 66 (his FRA) benefit is $2,000. Karen’s maximum spousal benefit is $1,000 at 66 (that is half of Burt’s age 66 retirement benefits). Burt plans to file for retirement benefits at 66, at which point Karen will be eligible to claim spousal benefits.

Karen knows that she can claim retirement benefits early at age 62 and get $300/month (75% of the $400 she could get at her FRA). She also believes that at her FRA she can switch to her spousal benefits and get $1,000. She is wrong on this last count. By claiming spousal benefits at her FRA, she can get the full spousal supplement, but that will not bring her up to $1,000.

Here is how the full spousal supplement is determined. It equals 1) a person’s maximum spousal benefit at their FRA ($1,000 for Karen) minus 2) that person’s retirement benefit at FRA ($400 for Karen). By claiming spousal benefits at her FRA, after claiming $300 in retirement benefits at 62, she gets a full spousal supplement of $600 (= $1,000 – $400). This brings her total benefit, at FRA, up to $900, not the $1,000 she was expecting.

Claiming retirement benefits early results in a significant reduction in those benefits. Karen thought she could claim retirement benefits early and then dodge that penalty by “switching” to spousal benefits. But, that is simply not possible, as the above example demonstrates. The early retirement penalty will stick with Karen until she dies (or until she switches to widow’s benefits— a topic for another post).

A final point: just as early claiming of retirement benefits is penalized, so is early claiming of a spousal supplement.  But, just to add to the complexity, the SSA uses different early claiming penalties for the two benefits.

For much more information about benefits available to married couples, go here.

 

6 thoughts on “How to Calculate the Social Security Supplemental Spouse Benefit

  1. Paul

    I’m not sure your calculation is correct on the spousal benefit in the example above? You failed to discount the spousal benefit due to her taking her benefits at 62 instead of at FRA of 66. I had contacted social security about this and was told a person who took benefits at 62 would receive 70% of the full spousal benefit less what is already being received. In this example i believe that spousal amount would be 70% of $1000 or $700… therefore she would receive an additonal $400 on top of her current $300 she’s receiving now. Thoughts?

    Reply
    1. rsettle Post author

      Paul,
      My caculation is correct. My example has Karen claiming her retirement benefits at 62, so she gets the reduced amount of $300/mo. (75% of $400, her FRA amount). And it has her claiming her spousal benefit at 66 (not 62, as you suggested). Indeed, in my example she is not even eligible to claim a spousal benefit until her husband claims his retirement benefits at 66. So, she gets the full spousal supplement, at her FRA, of $600. This brings her total benefit at her FRA up to $900/mo.

      Now, how would things look if she did claim spousal benefits at 62 (assuming that Burt had also claimed at 62 so that she is eligible to claim spousal benefits at that age). She would get 70% of $600, or $420, for her age-62 spousal supplement. In total, at age 62, she would have $720 (not $700 as you suggested).

      As my original post indicated, there is much confusion about how the supplemental spousal benefit works.

      Russ Settle

      Reply
  2. Brenda Avadian

    Russ, I did quick math…even if she took her benefits at 62 then claimed her newly retired benefits at age 66…the $100 a month less in spousal benefit, is not so bad.
    Consider, from 62 to 66 (4 years or 48 months) she collected $14,400 ($300 x 48) in benefits. It would take her 12 years to recoup that benefit. At age 78 (66+12) the $100 less a month would start making a difference. She could have invested that $300 or $3,600 a year and made even more. This could be a case of: “A bird in the hand is better than three in the bush.”
    Brenda Avadian, MA

    Reply
    1. rsettle Post author

      Brenda,

      In my example, I was not maintaining that claiming her retirement benefits early was optimal. Maybe it was a wise choice and maybe it wasn’t. I just set up a simple example to make my point about the way that retirement and spousal benefits interact.

      You may be interested in this post about the factors that determine optimal claiming strategies: http://www.socialsecuritychoices.com/blog/?p=304

      Your break even analysis is correct. But, for reasons why a break even analysis is generally misleading, check out this blog post: http://www.socialsecuritychoices.com/blog/?p=288

      Russ Settle

      Reply
  3. charlie pinter

    In your response to Paul you state that in your example Karen can”t claim her spousal benefit until her husband claims his at 66. So if I am 61, and my wife is 62, she could claim her reduced benefit now at 62 but she can’t claim a spousal benefit until I am 66? Can she claim a reduced spousal benefit if I claim my reduced benefit at say 63 and she is 64 or does she HAVE to be 66 to claim a spousal benefit. Or do I HAVE to be 66 for her to claim a spousal benefit? SO confusing!

    Reply
    1. rsettle Post author

      Charlie,
      Your wife can claim a spousal benefit as soon as she turns 62, provided that you have claimed your retirement benefit. My example was not intended to be a general statement. It was just an example.
      Russ Settle

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>