Mon. Dec 4th, 2023

Today’s Social Security column addresses questions about whether you can be eligible for later spousal benefits if you take early retirement benefits, working while receiving disability benefits and whether a parent’s widow’s benefit is set at the correct amount. Larry Kotlikoff is a Professor of Economics at Boston University and the founder and president of Economic Security Planning, Inc.

See more Ask Larry answers here.

Have Social Security questions of your own you’d like answered? Ask Larry about Social Security here.

Can I Take Social Security Retirement Benefits At 62 And Spousal Benefits Later?

Hi Larry, If I will receive my Social Security retirement benefits at 62, can I switch to my spousal benefit when he files for his retirement benefits. If yes, what percentage of my husband’s benefit amount will I receive? Thanks, Morgan

Hi Morgan, You can’t switch from your own retirement benefits to a spousal benefit, but you might be able to qualify for an excess (i.e. partial) spousal benefit in addition to your retirement benefit when your husband starts drawing his retirement benefits.

However, you’ll only qualify for excess spousal benefits if your husband’s primary insurance amount (PIA) is more than twice as much as your PIA. A person’s PIA is equal to their Social Security retirement benefit rate if they start drawing their benefits at full retirement age (FRA).

For example, say Mary files for her Social Security retirement benefits at 62. Mary’s PIA is $800, but Mary’s benefit rate is reduced for age to $563. Several years later Mary’s husband applies for his benefits, and his PIA is $2,000.

Mary’s unreduced excess spousal benefit would then be calculated by subtracting her PIA from 50% of her husband’s PIA, which in Mary’s case amounts to $200. If Mary is at least full retirement age (FRA) when she becomes eligible for the excess spousal benefit, she would then be paid the unreduced excess spousal amount of $200 in addition to her own reduced rate of $563 to give her a combined rate of $763.

But if Mary becomes eligible for spousal benefits prior to FRA, her spousal rate would also be reduced for age.

Before deciding when to start drawing your benefits, you may want to consider using my company’s software — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — to fully analyze your options so you can make informed decisions about your best strategy for maximizing your benefits and avoid unknowingly leaving money on the table. Social Security calculators provided by other companies or non-profits may provide proper suggestions if they were built with extreme care. Best, Larry

How Much Can I Make Without Any Penalties If I Receive Social Security Disability Benefits?

Hi Larry, I’m on Social security disability. How much can I make while I’m on disability without any penalties? And can I even work at all while I’m on disability? If I can and there’s presumably a limit, is it a monthly amount or a specific dollar amount? Thanks, Joshua

Hi Joshua, The full answer to your question is complex and depends on whether or not you’ve previously worked while receiving Social Security disability (SSDI) benefits. People receiving SSDI are first eligible for a 9-month trial work period (TWP) during which they can earn any amount without losing their SSDI benefits.

After the TWP is completed, though, a person can’t continue to perform what Social Security classifies as substantial gainful activity (SGA) without being subject to having their SSDI benefits suspended or terminated.

The current monthly earnings amount that is considered to be SGA is anything over $1,310 per month. That amount is separate from your SSDI benefit amount. In other words, regardless of how much you receive in SSDI benefits, you can generally earn up to an additional $1,310 per month without losing any SSDI benefits. Best, Larry

Am I Correct That My Mother Isn’t Getting Her Correct Amount?

Hi Larry, I read online that in 1983 Reagan changed the method of computing survivor benefits, but my mother, born in 1928 would be grandfathered. My late father received just over $400 and my mom gets about $700.

She gets only $7 from my fathers account, so I do not think they grandfathered her. No one at SSA I talked to knows anything about what this blog said Reagan did. Am I correct that she is not getting her correct amount? Thanks, Allen

Hi Allen, Just to clarify, congress is the the only governmental body that can make changes to Social Security laws. Presidents can veto Social Security amendments that are passed by congress, but presidents can’t change Social Security regulations.

There were some significant Social Security amendments passed into law by congress during the Reagan administration, but it’s not clear from the information in your question whether or not those changes might have affected your mother’s benefit amount. I would need to have full access to her Social Security records to give you a definite answer.

Basically, the surviving member of a couple can be paid no more than the higher of their two benefit rates. No one can be paid more than one type of Social Security benefit in full, and that’s been true since Social Security was originated in 1935. None of the amendments passed during the Reagan administration changed that fact.

If your father’s benefit rate was higher than your mother’s benefit rate, then what she should likely be receiving is her own benefit rate plus an excess, or partial, widow’s rate equal to the difference between her rate and your father’s rate. The sum of her two benefits would then add up to your father’s higher rate.

The only Social Security amendment that I can think of that was passed during the Reagan administration and might affect your mother’s widow’s rate is the Government Pension Offset (GPO) provision. There was a grandfathering provision in that law which exempted widow’s from offset if they were eligible for their government pension prior to December 1982.

However, unless your mother is receiving a pension based on her work for a federal, state, county or local governmental agency in the US where her earnings were exempt from Social Security taxes, then the GPO provision wouldn’t have any effect on her benefit amount. Best Larry

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