A lot of questions I receive about Social Security revolve around basic procedural issues. They tend to start out, “How do I…?” Such as:
How and when can I get a spousal benefit?
For the sake of example, let’s assume “John” retires from his job at age 62 and files online at www.ssa.gov to begin receiving Social Security benefits. Mary, his wife, is the same age. She is also the higher earner. She does not file for Social Security when John does because she is still working.
1. You cannot receive a spousal benefit until your spouse files for Social Security
Because he is married to someone who has earned the requisite 40 “credits” of Social Security(1), John is eligible for an additional amount called a “spousal” benefit. However, he is not entitled to receive this- yet- due to the fact that Mary, herself, has not filed.
At this point, the only benefit John will receive is the one based upon his own earnings record. Moreover, since he is beginning four years ahead of his “Full Retirement Age” of 66, his benefit will be reduced by 25%. This is a permanent reduction.
2. Adding a spousal benefit is not automatic
As Mary is approaching her Full Retirement Age (FRA), she goes to Social Security’s website and applies for her benefit to begin in the month she reaches 66. Once Mary files for her own benefit, John becomes entitled to his spousal amount.
If John assumes that Social Security is automatically going to increase his monthly check, he will be disappointed. In order to receive this additional benefit, John has to request it.
3. You must go through your local office
If John had been entitled to a spousal benefit at the time he initially filed for Social Security, he could have applied for both his own and his additional spousal amount at the same time- and, online. However, in John’s case, he started receiving his own Social Security retirement benefit before Mary filed for hers.
Since John is already receiving Social Security, he cannot apply online for his spousal amount. Instead, he must visit or call his local Social Security office.
4. Save time and make an appointment
Don’t try to look up the phone number for your local Social Security office. You won’t find it. Social Security does not publish these numbers. If you initially applied for benefits in person, you received a receipt with the telephone number, but that’s the only way you could have obtained it.
Not to worry.
According to Social Security spokesperson Dorothy Clark, “Your best bet” is to call Social Security’s toll-free number: 1-800-772-1213. Warning: You have to listen to about a 2 minute spiel about recent changes (such as the size of the annual cost-of-living-adjustment, the increase in Medicare premiums, etc.) and a litany of possible topics, but the automated voice will eventually ask you to state what you are calling about. Simply reply, “Make an appointment at my local office to file for spousal benefits.”
You will then be asked for your zip code and a contact phone number.
According to Clark, the national call center will pass along this information to your closest Social Security office and you’ll get a call back from a local representative. You can either make an appointment to come in to have your spousal benefit added or you can ask the individual who calls you to take care of this while you are on the phone.
5. Expanded hours are coming
The good news is that whether you prefer to take care of adding spousal benefits on the phone or in person, it will be easier to reach someone at your local Social Security office. Extra funding in this year’s federal budget means that, starting in mid-March, field offices will be open an hour longer- except on Wednesday.(2) The new hours mean that offices that are currently open from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. will remain open until 4 p.m.
This year, provided Social Security tax is deducted from your paycheck, you receive 1 credit of Social Security for every $1,220 that you earn. No matter how much you maker, you can only receive a maximum of 4 credits per year. You need 40 credits to qualify for Social Security benefits.