Q & A

Ask Rusty – Social Security Disability vs. Spouse Benefits vs. Survivor Benefits (and COLA)

Dear Rusty: I retired from working in June but will not sign up for Social Security until age 70 and, to do that, I plan to draw from my IRA for the next 3 years. My wife is receiving Social Security disability benefits and will reach her full retirement age in March of next year. I know that my wife simply reaching her full retirement age will not mean an increase to her benefit – except for COLA.  What I’m wondering is, can my wife get spousal benefits of any sort based on my Social Security benefits – either before I draw or after I am drawing – apart from her benefits at my death? Her Social Security disability amount is only a fraction of my maximum benefit. Signed: Baffled Husband

Dear Baffled: Looks like you’re confused about your wife’s Social Security disability benefits, retirement benefits, spousal benefits, and survivor benefits.  Here’s what you need to know: 

When your wife reaches her full retirement age (FRA) next year, her current Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefit will automatically convert to become her regular SS retirement benefit at the same amount she was receiving on SSDI (disability). The amount stays the same because your wife’s SSDI amount is based on her FRA entitlement.  

Your wife cannot get any spousal benefits from you until you claim your own Social Security retirement benefit. Since you plan to delay claiming until you are 70 several years from now, after your wife’s SSDI converts to become her regular retirement benefit at her FRA next year, she will continue to receive her own SS retirement benefit until you claim. At that point your wife will get a “spousal boost” added to her own SS retirement benefit. The amount of her spousal boost will be the difference between her FRA entitlement (same as her SSDI amount), and 50% of your FRA entitlement (not half of your age 70 amount – spouse benefits are always calculated using FRA amounts, regardless of when Social Security is actually claimed). 

Your wife cannot get a spousal benefit from you until you start your Social Security, but after you claim she will receive her higher spousal benefit (her own SS retirement benefit plus a spousal boost) for the rest of her life, or until you predecease her. If you die first, your wife will get 100% of the amount you were receiving at your death (e.g., your age 70 amount), instead of the smaller amount she was receiving as your spouse while you are both living. 

Regarding COLA, after becoming eligible for benefits, everyone gets the annually awarded COLA increase whether they are already collecting SS benefits or not. The next annual COLA increase will be added to your wife’s SSDI at the end of this year and added to her SS retirement amount each year thereafter, and then to her higher amount as your spouse after you claim. And even though you are waiting until age 70 to claim, the annual COLA will still be added to your Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) each year, and you will receive that past COLA in your monthly payments after you later claim. 

This article is intended for information purposes only and does not represent legal or financial guidance. It presents the opinions and interpretations of the AMAC Foundation’s staff, trained and accredited by the National Social Security Association (NSSA). NSSA and the AMAC Foundation and its staff are not affiliated with or endorsed by the Social Security Administration or any other governmental entity. To submit a question, visit our website (amacfoundation.org/programs/social-security-advisory) or email us at [email protected].

Comments On This Topic

  1. Dear Rusty: My wife now October 67 years old took SS at 65 and 6 months currently at $1950. I am October 61 and plan on doing the same in the future Current projection is 65/6 $2650. Full age 67 is $2850. if I pass away before taking any ss, what can she move up to?? If I live and take it at say 68 can she get my 68 larger amount? Like wise if she passes away what are my options to take hers and move up to mine later if any say if I am at 63 65 67 70?

    • John,
      If you pass before your wife and you have not yet claimed your Social Security benefit, your wife will get the full amount you were entitled to when you died (even though you weren’t yet collecting), instead of her smaller personal SS benefit. So if you wait past your full retirement age (FRA) to claim, for example to age 68, if you die your wife will get your age 68 amount instead of her own; if you wait until age 70 to claim she’ll get your age 70 amount, instead of her own. Essentially, because her own SS retirement benefit is smaller than yours, if you pass first your wife will get the amount you are entitled to instead of her own, even if you haven’t yet claimed your benefits.
      If, instead, your wife passes first and you haven’t yet claimed, you have the option of taking a surviving spouse benefit without taking your own. So if your wife dies before you claim, you could, for example, take your survivor benefit while allowing your own SS retirement benefit to grow (until maximum at age 70 if you like). If you were to take your survivor benefit before reaching your FRA of 67 it would be actuarially reduced for the number of months prior to FRA you claim it, but you could collect your survivor benefit until you decide to claim your own higher amount. Only thing you need to be careful of when claiming before your FRA is the “earnings test” which limits how much someone collecting early SS benefits can earn before SS takes away some of those benefits. The earnings limit changes annually – for 2024 it is $22,320 – and if you’re working full time you may be temporarily ineligible to collect early Social Security benefits of any kind. FYI, the earnings limit no longer applies once you reach your FRA of 67.
      John, I hope this answers your questions, but if you need anything further please feel free to contact us directly at [email protected], or call us at 1.888.750.2622.
      Russell Gloor
      National Social Security Advisor
      The AMAC Foundation

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