Ask The Advisor: Spousal Benefits

Ask The Advisor: Spousal Benefits

What Happened To My Higher Retirement Benefit?

Q: When my husband and I were planning the timing on our Social Security benefits, our financial advisor suggested that we could maximize our payout if I started with a spousal benefit based on my husband’s account, while letting my own retirement benefit grow. I continued to work and started the spousal benefit at age 66, my full retirement age. Now I am 70, but have not received any notice from Social Security about my own retirement benefit. Does this mean I won't get anything higher than I already receive?


A: Not necessarily. According to a new audit report by the Social Security Administration's Office of Inspector General, more than 26,000 beneficiaries receiving spousal benefits may be eligible for a higher retirement benefit based on their own earnings, but are not receiving them. Although the Social Security Administration sends notices to widows and widowers who may be eligible for a higher retirement benefit based on their own earnings at full retirement age, and age 70, it does not provide similar notices to spouses who may also be eligible for higher retirement benefits based on their own earnings.

The responsibility is on you to notify the SSA of your age, and file an application for retirement benefits based on your own earnings, if higher. As you continue working past age 66, the retirement benefit you receive based on your own earnings continues to grow. That retirement credit is only applied until age 70; however, there's no additional increase thereafter, so put in your claim now.

In 2008, an audit by the Social Security Administration's (SSA) Office of Inspector General found that spouses did not always receive the higher retirement benefits due them. Although 18,768 spouses were identified as eligible for higher retirement benefits in that audit and the SSA developed a notification letter, the agency took no further action to notify beneficiaries – citing "limited resources." As a result, these spouses never received the higher retirement benefits for which they were eligible.

A new audit performed this year by the SSA's Office of Inspector General found that the same problem persists. The Inspector General identified 26,033 spouses – who were eligible for about $195.3 million in higher retirement benefits (about $7,502 a piece on average).

Here is an example from the SSA's Inspector General audit report: A beneficiary had been entitled to spousal benefits since February 2002. The beneficiary had not received retirement benefits (based on her own earnings) and earned delayed retirement credits between full retirement age and age 70. In January 2010, the beneficiary attained age 70, was eligible for a $755 monthly retirement benefit and was receiving a $379 monthly spousal benefit. Had SSA notified the beneficiary she was eligible for the higher retirement benefit, once she applied for those benefits, she could have received an additional $18,345 from January 2010 through July 2013.

Don't delay. To learn more, find a local Social Security office or to apply online, visit the Social Security website at or call the Social Security Administration toll-free at 1-800-772-1213


Source: "Spouses Eligible For Higher Retirement Benefits," Office of the Inspector General, Social Security Administration, March 2014.