Restricted Applications for Social Security Benefits
In some cases, to get the most out of your Social Security benefits, you will need to use a process called a restricted application. Social Security rules signed into law in 2015 changed the right to file a restricted application for those born on or after January 2, 1954.
As there are different types of Social Security benefits you may be eligible for, a restricted application (sometimes referred to as “restricting the scope” of your application) tells the Social Security office that you are not simultaneously applying for all benefits you are eligible for.
When applying with a restricted application, you are asking to limit the scope of your application to only one benefit type. This strategy is generally used by recipients to garner higher-paying benefits than they would have received using other options.
A Restricted Application Limits Your Benefit Type
In many cases, a restricted application allows you to later apply for a different benefit type. To understand why you might use this rule take a look at some of the types of Social Security benefits you may be eligible for:
- A benefit based on your own earnings record—referred to as a Retirement Insurance Benefit (RIB)
- A benefit based on a spouse or ex-spouse’s earnings record—referred to as a spouse’s insurance benefit (SIB)
- A benefit based on a deceased spouse’s or deceased ex-spouse’s earnings record—referred to as a Widow's(er's) Insurance Benefit (WIB)
- A benefit if you are disabled—referred to as disability insurance benefits (DIB)
You are eligible to use a restricted application to claim a spousal benefit while letting your benefit continue to grow if:
- You were born on or before January 1, 1954
- Are currently married or are divorced (and eligible for a benefit on an ex-spouse’s record)
- You've reached full retirement age (FRA) and have not yet claimed your own benefits
If your benefit is higher than the spousal benefit, you can switch to your benefit amount when you reach age 70.
The Rules Have Changed For Those Born Later
If you were born on or after January 2, 1954, a restricted application may not be used for the purpose of claiming a spousal or ex-spousal benefit; however, widows(ers) may continue to use a restricted application at any claiming age. In Social Security’s online Programs Operations Manual System (POMS), their Scope of the Application section says:
“When a claimant is eligible for more than one benefit at the time of filing, he or she may, for any reason, choose to limit or restrict the scope of the application to exclude a class of benefits unless there is an exception. The reason may be to receive higher current benefits or to maximize the amount of benefits over a period-of-time, including the effect of delayed retirement credits (DRC).”
There are a few key points to note about the restricted application rules:
- A spouse must be full retirement age and have been born on or before January 1, 1954, to file a restricted application for a spousal benefit only—and must not have already begun their own benefits.
- A widow(er) or survivor of a deceased ex-spouse may file a restricted application even if they have not yet reached full retirement age—regardless of when they were born.
- A claimant who is caring for a child (under age 16 or disabled adult child) who is entitled to child’s benefits may have the option to restrict the application to spouse’s benefits only, even if they have not yet reached their full retirement age.
Restricted Applications and Spousal Benefits
A spouse claimant, born on or before January 1, 1954, who is at or past full retirement age (FRA), has the right to restrict the application to exclude RIB. However, claimants should take an RIB application in a reduced benefit situation when the spouse is insured for RIB as the "deemed filing" provision applies.
A “reduced benefit situation” means you are filing before you reach full retirement age. When you file before you reach full retirement age, you are deemed to be filing for spousal benefits at the same time you file for your own retirement benefits (if your spouse has already filed for their benefits).
In the cases of an ex-spouse, they have to have reached age 62 but are not required to have filed yet. Filing before full retirement age prevents you from using claiming strategies that might otherwise allow you to later switch between benefits.
For those born on or after January 2, 1954, when you file for benefits you will also be deemed to be filing for all benefits you are eligible for. You will not be able to restrict the scope of your application to only one benefit type unless you are a widow(er).
If your spouse has not already filed for benefits, you will not be deemed to be applying for a spousal benefit. Later when they subsequently file for their own benefits the deemed filing rules will kick in, and if your spousal benefit turns out to be more than your own benefit each month the additional amount will automatically be paid to you.
Restricted Applications and Widow(er) Benefits
The POMS says (section GN 00204.020E.4.a):
“A widow(er) or surviving divorced spouse may wish to exclude a reduced RIB from the scope of the application and defer filing for an unreduced RIB because of the benefit increases payable after FRA because of DRCs.”
To exclude a reduced RIB, the Social Security office needs a statement on the application, such as “I do not wish this application to be considered an application for reduced benefits on my own record.”
This means if your spouse or ex-spouse is deceased, and you are eligible for a widows(ers) benefit on their earnings record, you have greater leeway to restrict the scope of your application, even if you have not yet reached full retirement age (regardless of your date of birth).
You might do this to claim a widow(er) benefit for several years while allowing your own benefit to continue to accumulate delayed retirement credits. At age 70 you could then switch over and claim your own (now larger) benefit amount.
Restricted Applications When Caring for a Child
Spouses are able to restrict their benefits when they are caring for a child under the age of 16. You can choose to restrict your benefits and receive spousal benefits (at any age) while receiving child-in-care spousal benefits.
Once the child reaches the age of 16, the child-in-care benefit generally ceases. If you are under 62 years of age, there is no other social security option for you, although the child can still receive benefits. If you are at least 62, you will have the option to file for your own benefits, spousal benefits, or wait until FRA to receive your benefits.
If you are married, or a widow(er), a Social Security calculator (online software) can often provide you the type of analysis you need to find the best Social Security approach for your situation.
Because the rules are complex, some couples seek the advice of an attorney to advise them on their best claiming options. If you have dependents, multiple ex-spouses that may be eligible for disability benefits, or have other complexities, the services of an attorney may be appropriate.