I’ve been writing a weekly Q&A column for the last year, and the no. 1 issue I am asked about is claiming Social Security. It is no. 1 by such a wide margin that I can’t even guess what topic is in the runner up slot.

“When should my spouse and I take Social Security?” The answer is usually some version of “if this, then that, unless this or that.” The rules and exceptions and exceptions to exceptions are worse than what I remember of chemistry. 

Social Security’s handbook has over 2,700 rules. Explanations of the rules are found in the Program Operating Manual System (POMS). I caution my fellow financial planners about being too harsh on Social Security personnel for not always having the correct information. Theoretically, all the answers are in the POMS, but that does not mean they are easy to find.   

Today, I thought I would share some of the surprises planners and their clients encounter frequently. I’ve numbered them just to keep tabs with them, not to rank them.

1. At full retirement age (FRA), one may receive their retirement benefit or a spousal benefit equal to half their spouse’s retirement benefit, whichever is larger. Many do not realize that to claim that spousal benefit, the spouse on whose record the 50 percent payment is based must be receiving or have suspended retirement benefits. 

2. A favorite discussion is using a “restricted application” or a “file and suspend” strategy to maximize the amount of lifetime benefits paid to married couples. Many are disappointed to find that these options only exist at full retirement age. 

If a worker starts benefits prior to their FRA, and their spouse is receiving retirement benefits, the worker does not get to choose between their retirement benefit and a spousal benefit. They are automatically deemed to have begun their retirement benefit,  and if their spouse is receiving retirement benefits, a supplement is added to reach the spousal benefit amount.  All this is reduced for starting early. The total will be less than half the normal retirement benefit.