Ask Rusty – Spousal benefits lost

Dear Rusty:

I took my Social Security at 62 since I had to stop working to care for my mom when I was 57. I was widowed at the time but remarried when I was 58 1/2 years old. I collected on my own work record, which was low. Why didn’t I get half of my present husband’s benefit when he started benefits at his full retirement age? I am 70 now. Will I get his full Social Security if he dies before me?

Signed: Missing Benefits

Dear Missing:

Yours is an issue which we unfortunately see occasionally with folks who have been collecting their own benefits for a long time and later become entitled to more than they have been receiving. This situation arises with couples where the lower-earning spouse filed for Social Security before their higher-earning spouse applied. The lower-earning spouse (spouse#1) got benefits based upon their own work record only and received no spousal benefit because the higher-earning spouse (spouse#2) had not yet filed. Later on, when spouse#2 finally filed for benefits, spouse#1 became eligible for a “spousal boost” (if their spousal benefit was more than their own), but it did not happen automatically; that “spousal boost” had to be applied for when spouse #2 started benefits. Unfortunately many people didn’t realize this, assuming that the benefit they received when they first filed is what they get for the rest of their life.

They might also have assumed that Social Security automatically made the spousal adjustment for them, which wasn’t the case. As a result, we find that some spouses have lost thousands of dollars in benefits, simply because they did not know they had to actually apply for spousal benefits when they became eligible for them. A similar situation might exist where someone who was single and already receiving benefits marries a higher-earning person already collecting Social Security benefits. Again in this case, spousal benefits must have been applied for to be received. Note that since the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 was enacted, everyone applying for Social Security is “deemed filing” for both their own and spousal benefits, but that doesn’t mitigate this particular issue because both spouses applied for benefits prior to the new rules becoming effective.

In your specific case, you became eligible for your additional spousal benefit as soon as your present husband’s benefits began. Assuming your husband is about the same age as you, if ½ of your husband’s benefit at his full retirement age of 66 was more than your own benefit, this means that you have gone for about 4 years without receiving the added spousal benefits you are entitled to. So, the first thing you should do is to contact Social Security as soon as possible and apply for your spousal benefits (or do it online at ssa.gov). When you do this, be sure to make the effective date of those benefits 6 months prior to the date you file, because Social Security will pay you up to 6 months of retroactive benefits. Unfortunately, the remaining 3 ½ years of the benefits you were entitled to but didn’t claim may be lost. There is at least some chance, if your husband listed you as a spouse when he applied, that Social Security might give you more than six months retroactive, so you should make an appointment and explain what happened to see if anything more can be recovered.

As to your second question, yes, upon your husband’s death you will receive 100% of the benefit he was receiving, instead of the benefit you are already receiving.

The information presented in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The opinions and interpretations expressed in this article are the viewpoints of the AMAC Foundation’s Social Security Advisory. To submit a request, contact the Foundation at info@amacfoundation.org.