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How Couples Can Maximize Social Security Benefits

If you're married and approaching retirement, you have some decisions ahead.
June 7, 2019
Investing, Social Security
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Marriage changes a lot of things, including how you should consider claiming Social Security benefits.

Married couples have more options for claiming Social Security than single people. Spouses may start benefits at different ages and may be eligible for spousal benefits that can be up to half of what their partner receives. People who earn much less than their mates often get more from their Social Security spousal benefits than they would receive based on their own work records.

More options for claiming can also mean more opportunities for mistakes, however. While the right choices can help people live more comfortably in old age, the wrong Social Security claiming strategies could impoverish survivors and cost couples as much as $250,000 in lost benefits over their lifetimes, researchers have estimated.

Here are some important things to know:

  • Spousal benefits for married people are permanently reduced if either spouse applies before their own full retirement age, which is currently 66 and rising to 67 for people born in 1960 and later.
  • Starting early can also reduce the survivor benefit available when the first spouse dies.
  • Once you start receiving Social Security benefits, you typically can’t switch from spousal benefits to your own or vice versa, so it’s important to make the right choices before you lock yourself in.
  • Social Security spousal benefits are also available to divorced people if they aren’t remarried and their marriages lasted at least 10 years, but the rules are slightly different.

How Social Security is calculated

You can start Social Security as early as age 62, although researchers have found that most people are better off waiting at least until their full retirement ages. Each year you delay could add up to 8% to your benefit until age 70, when benefits max out. Most people will live beyond the “break-even” age, when the larger checks from delaying more than make up for the smaller checks they passed up.

Typically, one member of a couple needs to be receiving Social Security before the other can apply for spousal benefits. Social Security will calculate your own retirement benefit, based on your 35 highest-earning years, and then calculate your spousal benefit, based on your partner’s 35 highest-earning years. If your spousal benefit is greater, Social Security will pay you your benefit first and then add the amount necessary to match your spousal benefit.

In other words, both benefits are compared and you get the larger of the two amounts. This is why you typically can’t switch from a spousal benefit to your own later, because you’re already receiving your own (plus the spousal supplement). There are a few exceptions, which are covered below.

Social Security spousal benefits don’t reduce the higher earner’s benefit. Spousal benefits may, however, be sharply reduced if either person starts early.

Running the numbers

For example, a spouse whose full retirement age is 67 but who starts spousal benefits at 62 would get about one-third of the amount the higher earner receives, instead of half. If the higher earner starts early as well, that causes a further reduction.

Here’s an illustration of how different claiming ages could affect the total benefit of a higher earner who could qualify for $2,000 per month at full retirement age:

Claiming agesHigher earner's benefitSpousal benefitTotal benefit
Both apply at 67$2,000$1,000$3,000
Higher earner applies at 67, spouse at 62$2,000$650$2,650
Higher earner applies at 62, spouse at 67$1,400$1,000$2,400
Both apply at 62$1,400$650$2,050
Higher earner applies at 70, spouse at 67$2,480$1,000$3,480

Delayed retirement credits boost the higher earner’s check by 8% each year between full retirement age and 70. However, spousal benefits don’t get delayed retirement credits, and so would max out at the lower earner’s full retirement age.

Key consideration: Survivor benefits

Survivor benefits are another important factor in Social Security claiming strategies. If you’re single and make a mistake about claiming Social Security, you’re the one who has to suffer the consequences. If you’re married, though, your decision could affect the rest of your partner’s life.

When one spouse dies, the survivor will get only the larger of the two checks the couple was receiving, instead of continuing to receive both. And while spousal benefits don’t receive delayed retirement credits, survivor benefits do. So maximizing the higher earner’s benefit means the survivor will have more money to live on in the years that remain.

Claiming agesHigher earner's benefitSpousal benefitTotal while both liveTotal after one dies
Both apply at 67$2,000$1,000$3,000$2,000
Higher earner applies at 67, spouse at 62$2,000$650$2,650$2,000
Higher earner applies at 62, spouse at 67$1,400$700$2,100$1,400
Both apply at 62$1,400$455$1,855$1,400
Higher earner applies at 70, spouse at 67$2,480$1,000$3,480$2,480

You can get a personalized estimate of your own retirement benefits at My Social Security. The site doesn’t calculate the spousal or survivor benefits you could receive, but most retirement claiming calculators can do that if you input your spouse’s benefit estimate.

Special rules for the divorced

Divorced people whose marriages lasted at least 10 years and who are currently unmarried also can apply for spousal benefits if they’re 62 or older and their exes are receiving their own benefits.

If your ex is not receiving benefits, you can still apply if both you and your ex are at least 62 and the marriage ended at least two years earlier. (This rule is to keeps vengeful exes from denying spousal benefits by purposely delaying their own.)

Also, if you’re divorced, your spousal benefit is based on the amount your ex would receive at his or her full retirement age. It doesn’t matter if your ex actually starts early or late.

More than one ex can receive a spousal benefit based on a worker’s earnings, by the way, as long as each marriage lasted at least 10 years. Divorced spousal benefits don’t reduce the worker’s benefit or the current spouse’s benefit, and you don’t have to talk to or coordinate with your ex to receive divorced spousal benefits.

Once your ex dies, you can qualify for a divorced survivor benefit of up to 100% of the amount your ex received.

Switching is no longer an option for most

You may have heard of a technique that helped couples delay called “file and suspend.” Until 2016, couples could claim spousal benefits while allowing their retirement benefits to grow. The higher earner would file an application and then suspend it, triggering the ability of the lower earner to apply for a spousal benefit. Typically, the lower earner filed a “restricted application” for spousal benefits only, and then switched to their own benefit when it maxed out at age 70.

File and suspend is no longer allowed, and only people born before Jan. 2, 1954, can file restricted applications.

There are a couple of other circumstances where people can still switch benefits. If a spousal benefit is not available when you apply because your partner hasn’t started Social Security yet, you can start with your own benefit but switch to spousal benefits later when your partner applies, if the spousal benefit is larger.

Also, if you’re receiving survivor benefits, you can switch to your own benefit at any point if it’s larger.

Smart strategies usually involve some delay

Retirement experts encourage higher earners to delay starting Social Security to maximize the survivor benefit and the amount their household receives overall.

When both spouses have earned similar retirement amounts, it often makes sense to delay both applications at least until full retirement age. You may want to consider at least one person delaying to age 70 to maximize the survivor benefit.

Delaying past full retirement age may be wise if you expect to live to your mid-80s or longer, as most retirees will. Currently, a 65-year-old man will live to 84, on average, while a 65-year-old woman can expect to live to 86.5, on average, according to the Social Security Administration. But 1 out of 3 65-year-olds will live past 90 and about 1 in 7 will live past 95. With any couple, there’s a 50% chance one member be alive at 92, according to the Society of Actuaries.

For people currently in their mid-50s, 1 out of 2 women and 1 in 3 men will live to be 90, actuaries say.

Deciding when to apply can be a complex decision. Researchers have found that most people are better off delaying, but your situation may be different. You can use a Social Security claiming calculator to help inform your decision. AARP has a free one. You can find a more sophisticated version at Maximize My Social Security that for $40 can handle more complicated situations, such as having a government pension.

The most important thing to remember is that you’re making decisions for two, rather than just yourself. Invest some time in researching your options, and the payoff could be a more comfortable retirement for you both.

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