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What Age Can a Spouse Collect Social Security?

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Have you been contemplating when the optimal time is for your spouse to start collecting Social Security? Knowing whether your spouse can collect benefits before their full retirement age is an important financial planning consideration.

In this in-depth guide, we’ll break down all the ins and outs of when a spouse can begin collecting Social Security retirement benefits. We’ll define the key eligibility requirements and payment amounts your spouse could receive based on different claiming ages.

Let’s get started!

Eligibility Requirements for a Spousal Benefit

Before exploring the different ages your spouse can start collecting, we first need to cover the basic eligibility requirements to receive a spousal Social Security benefit:

The working spouse must be eligible for Social Security retirement benefits. This means having earned enough work credits through a job where Social Security taxes were paid. Generally, you need about 10 years (40 work credits) of covered employment to be eligible.

The spouse applying for benefits must be at least 62 years old. Even if the working spouse is already collecting Social Security, the non-working spouse can’t apply for spousal benefits before age 62.

The spouse applying must be unmarried. If a divorced spouse remarries before age 60, they generally lose eligibility for ex-spousal Social Security benefits based on the prior marriage.

The working spouse must be collecting Social Security benefits or meet retirement eligibility requirements. Your spouse doesn’t actually need to be receiving retirement benefits yet, but they must either be collecting benefits or meet the criteria to begin receiving them based on age or disability.

With the basic criteria out of the way, let’s examine the different ages a spouse can start drawing down spousal Social Security benefits.

Age 62 – Earliest Possible Spousal Benefit

The earliest your spouse can file for a spousal Social Security benefit is age 62. Even if the working spouse hasn’t claimed benefits yet, as long as they meet the eligibility criteria, the non-working spouse can start receiving a reduced payment at 62.

However, there are a couple important factors to consider with claiming at age 62:

Payment Reduction – If your spouse files for spousal benefits before their full retirement age (FRA), their monthly payment will be permanently reduced. For those born in 1960 or later, a spouse filing at exactly 62 would receive a 25% reduction in their full spousal benefit amount.

Earnings Test – If your spouse is under FRA for the entire year they claim spousal benefits, their Social Security payment will be reduced $1 for every $2 earned over the yearly earnings limit. In 2023, that limit is $21,240.

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So while 62 is the earliest eligibility age, the payment reductions might make waiting a better option for some spouses depending on individual circumstances. Let’s explore how payments change at later claiming ages.

Full Retirement Age – Maximum Possible Monthly Benefit

Generally between ages 66-67 depending on birth year, a spouse’s full retirement age (FRA) is the age at which they can begin receiving their full spousal benefit amount with no reductions applied.

For example, if the working spouse’s primary insurance amount (PIA) is $2,000 at FRA, then a spouse claiming at their own FRA would receive 50% of that PIA, or $1,000 per month.

Importantly, spousal benefits claimed at exact FRA aren’t subject to Social Security’s retirement earnings test. And since the monthly benefit is not reduced, in many cases it makes sense for a spouse to claim then if able to delay past 62.

However, your spouse also has the option to earn delayed retirement credits by waiting past their FRA up until age 70. Let’s see how that could further boost their monthly payments.

Age 70 – Maximum Delayed Retirement Credits

For each year a spouse delays claiming benefits past their full retirement age, their benefit amount grows by a certain percentage. This is known as delayed retirement credits.

  • For people born in 1943-1954, the credit is 8% per year of delay between FRA to 70.
  • For those born in 1955-1959, the credit is 7% per year.
  • For 1960 or later, the credit is 6% per year.

So if a spouse waits until 70 to apply for spousal benefits, their benefit may be significantly larger than someone claiming at FRA.

For example, if a spouse’s FRA benefit was $750, waiting until 70 could increase it to around $1,080 per month – a 31% boost compared to filing at 66!

Assuming good health, for many spouses it’s optimal to let benefits grow with delayed retirement credits until age 70 when payments peak. But there are some pros to claiming earlier too depending on circumstances.

Claiming Spousal Benefits Between Ages 62-70

If a spouse doesn’t want to wait until 70 but also doesn’t want to accept the full benefit reduction of claiming at 62, they have the option of claiming as early as 63 up until their FRA.

For instance, if a spouse claimed at exactly age 64, their monthly payment would be 93.3% of the FRA amount rather than the permanent 25% reduction applying at 62.

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So claiming in this “file and suspend” zone provides a balance between receiving some payments while not undercutting long-term benefit growth by waiting for FRA or 70. However, there may still be an earnings test to consider depending on income amount.

The optimal claiming age is unique to each spouse’s specific goals, finances, health, and the working spouse’s benefit eligibility. With knowledge of all the ages and payment implications, you can make the best choice tailored to your situation.

Now that we’ve covered eligibility and how benefits vary by age, let’s discuss a few other Social Security claiming strategies unique to spouses.

Special Spousal Claiming Strategies

Beyond the standard ages, here are a couple other Social Security strategies spouses can leverage:

File and Suspend

With file and suspend, the working spouse files for their retirement benefit at FRA but immediately requests to “suspend” it. This allows the non-working spouse to file for spousal benefits while the working spouse’s benefit grows with delayed retirement credits until age 70.

Once the working spouse reaches 70, they can start collecting their now enlarged retirement benefit while the spouse continues receiving spousal payments. An effective option if the working spouse expects to live into their 80s or beyond.

Restricted Application

In a restricted application, a spouse files just for spousal benefits at FRA while letting their own retirement benefit accrue delayed credits until 70. Then at 70, they start their own retirement benefit and may switch to that larger payment instead of the spousal benefit.

A restricted application maximizes both individual retirement and survivor benefits over the long run compared to regular spousal claiming at FRA alone.

Benefits as a Widow or Widower

If the working spouse passes away, an eligible surviving spouse can claim the deceased’s full retirement benefit instead of their spousal amount. This is generally the larger of the two payments. Survivor benefits may start as early as age 60 and accrue delayed credits until 70 as well.

With these advanced strategies, a spouse has maximum flexibility to optimize both lifetime benefits as well as survivor protections based on their situation. Consulting a financial planner can help choose the best approach.

Coordination with Other Retirement Income

When deciding on a spousal Social Security claiming age, it’s also critical to consider your household’s full retirement income picture. Factors like:

  • Pension income amounts from the working spouse or other jobs
  • Personal retirement account savings and distributions
  • Spousal or survivor benefits from other plans
  • Non-work income from real estate, dividends, etc.
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For example, if your spouse has an ample pension at 62, they may feel comfortable reducing Social Security to let benefits grow with delayed credits. Or if money is tight, claiming spousal benefits as early as possible could help make ends meet.

By viewing Social Security in context of all expected retirement monies, you can determine the optimal integration and claiming approach across sources. This maximizes the utility of each income stream.

With a holistic financial plan factoring in Social Security, pensions, savings, and non-work income, your household can develop the best retirement benefit harvesting strategy tailored to its specific circumstances and goals. Consulting a reputable financial advisor can assist with this crucial planning process.

Making the Best Spousal Claiming Decision

We’ve covered the ins and outs of when and how a spouse can collect Social Security benefits. But with so many options and variables to weigh, how do you ultimately choose the approach that’s right for your situation?

Here are some final tips and considerations for making the optimal spousal Social Security claiming decision:

  • Calculate your estimated monthly benefits under different claiming ages using Social Security calculators online.┬áConsult a financial planner who can run advanced projections and model scenarios tailored to your unique circumstances. This provides an objective outside perspective.
  • Discuss potential strategies and trade-offs openly with your spouse or partner. Ensure your approaches are aligned with shared retirement priorities and needs.┬áPay attention to how claiming ages might affect survivor benefits for a future spouse. Maximizing this protection provides security.
  • Be aware of any earnings test exemptions or work considerations if drawing benefits earlier than full retirement age. Note how benefits grow the longer you delay past full retirement age up until age 70. Generally, the longer you can afford to wait the larger your monthly payment.
  • Factor in the probability of receiving spousal benefits until death versus switching to a potential larger survivor benefit later.┬áConsider unexpected costs like long-term care which could deplete other savings more quickly than anticipated.

With a thorough analysis weighing all of these moving pieces, you’ll feel much more confident optimizing the spousal Social Security claiming decision that best supports your financial well-being in retirement.

Remember, you can always change your mind later if personal circumstances evolve over time. But starting from a place of knowledge is key.

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