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The maximum monthly Social Security retirement benefit for a married couple in 2023 is $9,110 if each spouse waits until age 70 to receive benefits and paid the maximum Social Security tax over 35 years of earnings. Typically, the couple must be married at least a year.
Social Security retirement benefits do not impose a “marriage penalty” on people because they are married. Each spouse is entitled to the same amount they would get if single.
However, what is more common than trying to maximize both checks is for spouses to seek a reasonable way to maximize the cumulative benefits they’ll receive in retirement. And that involves more factors than just the highest possible monthly payout.
You’ll also want to consider:
Health (and how long you are likely to live).
Tax consequences related to when you claim benefits.
Whether you have enough savings to cover retirement expenses before you turn 70 and can collect the maximum Social Security retirement benefit.
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There are several strategies to consider. Which one is best for you depends on your goals and circumstances.
Strategy 1: The higher earner waits as long as possible to claim benefits
Especially when there is a significant difference in monthly Social Security retirement benefits, there’s an advantage to having the higher earner retire later. Here’s why:
When one spouse dies, the other receives the higher of the two Social Security benefits for the rest of their life.
It might make sense to live off retirement savings first so the higher earner can collect a higher retirement benefit later. Delaying benefits can increase checks by 8% for each year you wait.
Your full retirement age, the age at which you’re entitled to 100% of your monthly Social Security retirement benefit, depends on the year you were born. For people born in 1960 or later, it’s 67. People who apply for benefits before reaching full retirement age typically get a reduced benefit.
Maximizing the higher earner’s benefit can be crucial if one spouse had no income or a small income. Even if you can’t wait until age 70, every month you are eligible for benefits but choose not to receive them adds to your check when you do. That also means if the higher-earning spouse files early and ends up with a reduced retirement benefit, the person may be permanently limiting the surviving spouse’s benefit.
Strategy 2: Each spouse retires at 70
This maximizes each spouse’s retirement benefits and can work best if spouses are of similar ages, have long life expectancies and both enjoy working and earning.
Strategy 3: One or both spouses claim benefits early
Claiming retirement benefits before reaching full retirement age usually results in a reduced benefit, but if one or both spouses have health issues that may shorten their life span, this may be a viable strategy.
Strategy 4: Maximize the survivor benefit
Social Security survivor benefits are paid to a surviving spouse (and sometimes eligible dependents) of a deceased person who qualified for Social Security retirement benefits. The size of the survivor benefit varies with the size of the deceased person’s retirement benefit. A couple could thus consider maximizing one benefit — that of the higher earner — with an eye toward the survivor collecting a higher benefit.
It’s important to understand, though, that if the higher earner retires before full retirement age and thus gets a reduced benefit, the surviving spouse’s benefit will be lower, too.
If the higher-earning spouse dies after full retirement age but before age 70, the survivor gets the amount the deceased would have been entitled to as of the month of their death.
A strategy called “file and suspend,” which allowed a spouse to file and then suspend their own benefits and instead collect spousal benefits while their own check continued to grow, was eliminated in 2015.
Survivors may be entitled to benefits that can start when they are as young as 60, or 50 if they are disabled, although benefits are reduced if started early. Once a survivor reaches full retirement age, they can switch to their own Social Security retirement benefit if it is higher.
Spouses who do not qualify for benefits on their own may qualify for Social Security spousal benefits, which can equal up to 50% of the working spouse’s benefit (depending on the spouse’s age at retirement).
If each spouse does qualify for benefits, the lower-earning one gets the higher of:
50% of their partner’s benefit, or
The benefit they qualify for on their own.