Even before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered Social Security offices in March 2020, eliminating in-person visits for all but the most dire cases, I was urging individuals to file for their benefits online. It’s quick. It’s easy. And the online questionnaire can steer you toward the right claiming decision.
I took my own advice when I reached my full retirement age of 66 this month and applied for my retirement benefits online.
Some of my regular readers may wonder why I didn’t wait until age 70 to claim my maximum retirement benefit. It’s because I am following another piece of my own advice: Married couples should coordinate their Social Security claiming strategies to maximize their household benefits over their joint lifetimes.
Having one spouse, preferably the one with the bigger Social Security retirement benefit, wait until 70 to claim the maximum amount potentially creates a larger survivor benefit. Waiting until 70 to file for Social Security increases the retirement benefit amount by 32% for people whose full retirement age is 66. When one spouse dies, the larger benefit continues for the surviving spouse and the smaller benefit disappears.
In our case, my husband was born in 1952, meaning he is eligible to claim only spousal benefits — worth half of my full retirement age benefit amount — while his own retirement benefits continue to grow up to age 70. But he can file a restricted claim for spousal benefits only if I claim my retirement benefits first.
Because I was born in December 1954, I missed the birth date cutoff of Jan. 1, 1954, that would have allowed me a similar spousal claiming option. So I took the plunge in November and applied for my own retirement benefits to take effect in my birthday month of December, with my first payment in January. Although I plan to keep working, Social Security earnings restrictions disappear at full retirement age. Anyone can apply for Social Security retirement benefits online up to four months before they want their benefits to start.
Within two weeks, I received a letter from the Social Security Administration confirming my gross benefit amount, as well as the net amount I would receive starting in January after deducting my monthly Medicare premium.
I enrolled in Medicare last year when I turned 65, but older workers who have group health insurance coverage through their current employer or their spouse’s current employer can delay enrolling in Medicare until that insurance ends.
With my benefits confirmation letter in hand, the next step was for my husband to apply for his spousal benefits online. I was curious if his application would look any different than mine due to his different birth year. It did.
After asking which month Mike wanted his benefits to begin, the application gave him an option that did not appear on my online form: “If you are eligible for both retirement benefits and spouse’s benefit, do you want to delay receipt of retirement benefits?” the application said. “If you are full retirement age and we determine that you are eligible to receive both a retirement benefit and a spouse’s benefit, you may choose to delay receive your own retirement benefit and receive only the spouse’s benefit now.” After receiving an approving nod from me, Mike clicked “Yes.”
Like me, Mike received an email confirmation that his application for benefits was received. I expect he will receive a notification letter by mail within a few weeks. Because he is applying for spousal benefits on my earnings record, I suspect SSA may request proof of our marriage. We have a certified copy of our marriage license ready to supply if requested.
Divorced spouses applying for benefits on an ex’s earnings record also need to supply an official divorce decree. To be eligible to claim benefits as an ex-spouse, you must have been married at least 10 years before divorcing and be currently single.
Ex-spouses who were born on or before Jan. 1, 1954, can claim only spousal benefits and allow their own retirement benefits to continue to grow until age 70. Divorced spouses who were born after that date do not have that option. They will receive the highest benefit to which they are entitled at the age they claim benefits, whether on their own earnings record or as a spouse. They don’t get to choose.
Widows, widowers and eligible surviving ex-spouses (who were married at least 10 years and who did not remarry before age 60) cannot apply for survivor benefits online. They should call the SSA toll-free number, 800-772-1213, or find the number of their local SSA field office based on their zip code at the Social Security Office Locator.
As our second lead editor, Cindy Hamilton covers health, fitness and other wellness topics. She is also instrumental in making sure the content on the site is clear and accurate for our readers. Cindy received a BA and an MA from NYU.