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Ask Bob: Why Isn't My Spouse Receiving 50% of My Current Social Security Benefit?

A reader is confused as to why his wife is receiving less than 50% of his current Social Security benefit. Retirement adviser Rob Kron explains the nuances of spousal benefits.

Question

We have had difficulty getting an opinion through the Social Security phone or web site and have not been able to meet with anyone in the closed Social Security offices due to COVID-19.

I have read about a spouse being able to draw a monthly distribution equal to one-half of the other spouse’s monthly Social Security payment.

I turned 70 on October 3, 2015, and began taking my monthly Social Security payments.

My wife’s birthday is March 5, 1953, and she began drawing her Social Security benefits when she turned 66 (in 2018).

Is she eligible to take a monthly payment of half of my Social Security benefit? If she could, that is higher than what Social Security has been paying her, by a large amount.

Can you please tell me what you believe she is eligible for? And, if her amount can be increased, how I can go about correcting this?

Beginning this month in 2022 her monthly amount is $1,221.10 and mine is $3,564.10.

Answer

The short answer to the question is yes, your reader’s wife is eligible to collect a benefit based on her husband’s work history, says Rob Kron, CFP®, Managing Director, Advisor Education Consultant, at Nuveen, but given the information provided, it is likely that she is already receiving that benefit.

Kron says this question highlights two common misunderstandings regarding how spousal benefits work:

  • The process for determining the Initial spousal benefit amount 
  • Ways that spousal benefits can be reduced

“Your reader’s wife is not entitled to 50% of the $3,564.10 he is collecting,” explains Kron. “Instead, she is eligible to collect 50% of his Primary Insurance Amount (PIA). This is a very common misunderstanding.”

A person’s PIA is the amount they would receive if they collected their benefit at their full retirement age (FRA). “Based on the information provided, your reader has a full retirement age of 66,” says Kron. “Given that he waited four years past his FRA to collect his benefit, the check he is receiving is 32% larger than his PIA. While the math is more complicated, I would estimate his PIA to be around $2,700 (3564/1.32=2,700). So, the spousal benefit would be half of that or $1,350.”

The second area of confusion involves possible reductions to this initial amount due to early collection (as well as taking into account other benefits a person might be eligible to receive). “If your reader’s wife had collected the spousal benefit at her full retirement age (FRA), there would be no reduction,” Kron notes. “The information provided has a discrepancy regarding her collection age. If she was born in 1953 and started collecting in 2018, then she would have collected prior to her full retirement age of 66. For every month she collected early, the spousal benefit would be reduced. If she collected at the beginning of 2018 that would equate to 14 months early and a 9.72% reduction. As such, the $1,350 would be reduced to approximately $1,220.”

The other factors that can modify a spousal benefit don’t appear to be applicable to your reader’s situation, adds Kron. They are:

  • Her own Social Security benefit is larger than the spousal benefit. If this were the case, they would have paid her the larger individual benefit instead of the spousal benefit (unless she took advantage of a special provision that was phased out starting in 2016 called the restricted application). 
  • She was eligible to receive a non-covered government pension (a pension earned while not paying into social security). This reduction is called the government pension offset (GPO) and reduces a spousal benefit by two thirds (2/3) of a monthly non-covered pension.

“Since it is unclear exactly when she started collecting benefits, the easiest way to confirm that she is receiving the correct benefit amount is to have her call the Social Security Administration (SSA) at 800-772-1213 and ask them to verify that the check she is receiving includes her spousal benefit,” he recommends. “If it does, then she can rest easy knowing that she is receiving everything she is entitled to collect. If it doesn’t, ask the SSA why the spousal benefit isn’t included. If the reason is due to a mistake, have them correct it.”

Got questions? Get answers!

Email Robert.Powell@maven.io

Question

We have had difficulty getting an opinion through the Social Security phone or web site and have not been able to meet with anyone in the closed Social Security offices due to COVID-19.

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