A woman who has worked under Social Security and earned the minimum 40 credits can apply for retirement benefits as early as age 62. If she is married and her husband has already applied for benefits, she may be able to receive a higher benefit based on his Social Security record.
The best way to explain how this works is to give an example: Mary was born between 1943 & 1954 so her Full Retirement Age (FRA) is age 66.
- Her unreduced benefit at 66 would be $1000.
- If her husband Joe already gets benefits, the maximum spouse's benefit she could get is 50% of his unreduced benefit ($1600), in this case $800.
Mary can apply as early as age 62 but her retirement benefits will be permanently reduced by 25% to $750 if she does. She cannot receive benefits as Joe's wife because at 62 the spouse's benefit is reduced by 30% to $560. Her own retirement benefit is higher so that is all she will receive.
The same would apply if Mary had been divorced from Joe after at least 10 years of marriage and remained single when she applied for retirement. She can only draw benefits as a divorced spouse if those benefits are higher than her own.
There is a way Mary can get both benefits, but to do so she would have to wait until her FRA (age 66) to apply. Then she can choose between applying for her own retirement or benefits as a spouse (or ex-spouse).
In this example, Mary could get unreduced wife's benefits of $800 per month from age 66 through 69, then at age 70 apply for delayed retirement at a higher rate of $1320 per month.
Confusing? Maybe a little, but remember that applying for a lower spouse's benefit at your FRA and then switching to a higher retirement benefit at age 70 is a good way to maximize your Social Security income as you age.