Social Security's Most Misunderstood Rule

Regular readers of my column know that over the years, I’ve dealt with many misunderstandings that people have about their Social Security benefits. In fact, I just wrote a column a couple of weeks ago that dealt with many of these misconceptions. But I can tell from the hundreds of emails I’ve received as a result of that column that there is one issue people get wrong more than any other.

So many women think that they can take reduced benefits on their own Social Security record at age 62 and then, at some later age, switch to full (50 percent) benefits as a wife on their husband’s account. Or they think they can take reduced spousal benefits at age 62 and then later switch to full benefits on their own record.

You cannot do that. Let me state this very emphatically: If you take reduced benefits on one record, that reduction carries over to any other Social Security benefits you might be due.

In other words, if you file for any kind of reduced Social Security benefit, you must at the same time apply for any and all other Social Security benefits you are due.

So, for example, if a woman wants to take Social Security at age 62, the Social Security Administration will always pay her own benefits first. And those benefits would come with a 25 percent early-retirement reduction. At the same time, SSA will look at her husband’s account (assuming he’s already getting Social Security) to see if she can get any extra benefits on his record. Her benefit could be supplemented up to roughly 30 percent of his rate.

Or, if the husband is not yet getting Social Security but files several years later, at that point, SSA will see if she is due anything on his account. But once again, because she took early retirement benefits, that reduction carries over to any spousal benefits she is due.

The technical term SSA uses for this is the “unrestricted application policy.” That means that an application for one kind of Social Security benefit is automatically an application for any and all other Social Security benefits a person might be due. Because most people are usually due benefits from only two accounts — their own and a spouse’s — in practical day-to-day use, the policy is saying that if you apply for your own Social Security benefit, you are automatically applying for spousal benefits at the same time.

So that’s why you can’t take reduced benefits on one record and then later switch to full benefits on another record.

But there are a couple important exceptions to this rule. There are two times when a person can restrict his or her Social Security application to just one kind of benefit and then later switch to higher benefits on another record.

One of those exceptions applies to widows or widowers. For example, a widow (or divorced widow) can take reduced widow’s benefits at age 62 and then at either age 66 or 70 switch to full benefits on her own record. If she waits until that later age, her benefits would come with a 32 percent delayed retirement bonus.

The other exception applies to people who are over age 66. In other words, if you don’t take any kind of reduced Social Security benefits, then you can “restrict” your application. For example, a 66-year-old woman could file for wife’s benefits on her husband’s Social Security record and then, at age 70, switch to full retirement benefits on her own account. And once again, those benefits would come with a 32 percent bonus.

Q: I am 65 years old and about to retire. I want to get my full Social Security benefits. I was told by a close friend that I could start out now, getting a husband’s benefit on my wife’s Social Security account (she’s been getting Social Security for a couple years now) and then, at 66, switch to my Social Security account and begin getting my full rate. Is this true?

A. No, it’s not true. And it’s not true for the same reasons I explained in the above answer. Even though I generally was referring to women in that answer, the same rules apply to men.

But as I explained in the prior answer, you could wait until age 66 and, at that point, file for a husband’s benefit on your wife’s Social Security account. And then at age 70, you could switch to full retirement benefits on your record and get that bonus.

Q: I was married and divorced three times. Each marriage lasted more than 10 years. Can I get Social Security from all of my prior husbands?

A: You are potentially due benefits from each ex-husband, but you’ll get Social Security benefits from only one of them — the one who pays the highest rate.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



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