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Setting Social Security Straight

Sometimes the people whose job it is to know the rules don't know them all.

Less well-known: If you wait until full retirement age to file for benefits, you can choose to take only your spousal benefit. If you do that, you can delay receiving your own retirement benefit until a later date. Your benefit will grow approximately 8 percent a year for each year of delay until you’re 70. You can switch from your spousal benefit to your own benefit at any time between ages 66 and 70.

This option is available both to people who are married and to eligible divorced individuals—and it can add thousands of dollars to your total retirement income.

Basic: Regardless of your age, you cannot apply for a spousal benefit until your wife or husband has filed for Social Security.

Less well-known: When your spouse reaches full retirement age, your spouse can file for retirement benefits and then request to have his or her payments suspended. That way, you can receive a spousal benefit while your spouse’s benefit continues to grow 8 percent a year until age 70.

Less well-known: If you’re divorced and you qualify for a spousal benefit, you can file for that benefit as soon as you and your ex-spouse are both eligible to receive Social Security, even if he or she hasn’t yet filed for it.

Finally, there’s a “buyer’s remorse” option for people who accepted a smaller benefit before reaching full retirement age, and now regret that decision. You can repay all the benefits you’ve received to date, and reapply at your current age for a larger amount. To start that process, you file a Request for Withdrawal of Application, form SSA-521. To get a copy, visit Social Security’s online forms page and type “521” in the search box.

Tips for your visit

Don’t get flustered if the Social Security representative cites rules that don’t apply to your situation. Some agents are unfamiliar with the options available to people who claim benefits at or after full retirement age.

For example, some readers who are 66 or older have mistakenly been told they earn too much to collect a spousal benefit. When you receive Social Security, there’s an annual limit on the amount you can earn—but only until you reach full retirement age. Thereafter, you’re not subject to any earnings cap.

Others have been told that they can’t collect a spousal benefit if their own benefit is bigger. Again, this is only true if you’re under full retirement age. When you reach that age, you can exclude your own benefit from your application.

Be persistent, patient, and polite. If necessary, ask the rep to double-check the rules and consult his or her supervisors, and get back to you. Or ask to speak with a supervisor yourself. It may take more time than you expected, but you will ultimately get the benefits you’re entitled to.


Lynn Brenner is a New York City-based writer. She answers personal finance questions at

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