How Should I Coordinate My Benefits Decision With My Spouse?

Beth Misak |

By Paul Hynes, CFP®
April 2019

(This is Part 3 of a series on when and how to claim your Social Security benefits.)

You’re approaching retirement. At last, you can tap into your Social Security benefits. After all, you’ve been paying into the system your entire working career. However, if you’re married, divorced, or widowed, you may be able to coordinate benefits to increase your monthly income. Keep in mind that there’s no “one size fits all” strategy. Each couple and situation is different.

In our previous articles, Parts 1 and 2, we discussed the various decisions a person can make as to when to claim benefits. The options are: at full retirement age (about age 66), early retirement (as early as 62), or delayed, (up to age 70). This article will explore how to coordinate the claiming decision between spouses.

Most people have a record of some earnings over their lifetime. Social Security benefits are calculated based on the highest 35 years of earnings. If you don’t work during any year, that counts as a zero in the calculation. When both spouses retire, each person is entitled to their own benefit, or 50% of their spouse’s benefit, whichever is higher.

If you were born before January 2, 1954, you can still make use of the “restricted application” strategy. This strategy allows you to claim a spousal benefit only, which is 50% of your spouse’s benefit, while letting your own benefit grow. Then, at age 70, you would switch to your own benefit – assuming your own benefit is higher than your spousal benefit. Using the restricted application strategy will usually result in more total benefits over the combined projected lifetime.

If you don’t qualify for the restricted application strategy, it can get a bit tricky. For example, the higher earning spouse may want to delay receiving benefits until age 70. The lower earning spouse may want to take benefits early, perhaps as early as age 62, based on his own earnings record. Then, when age 70 arrives, the higher earner claims her own benefit, while the other spouse will get either his benefit or a spousal benefit, whichever is higher.

With spouses of different ages, or different health conditions, it gets even trickier. The claiming strategy decision is a big one; you’re setting up what you’re going to receive for the rest of your lives. It’s important to consult with your advisors when making such a decision. The people at the Social Security administration can talk about the facts, but they can’t offer advice.

If you’re currently divorced, yet were married for at least 10 years, you’re able to claim benefits based on your ex-spouse’s earnings record, even if they remarried. You must be unmarried and at least age 62. Other factors apply, so check with your advisors.

A widow or widower can also apply for benefits. A one-time payment of $255 can be paid to the surviving spouse if he or she was living with the deceased, or if living apart, was receiving benefits based on the deceased’s record. A widow or widower may be eligible for monthly benefits if certain conditions are met. Even if you remarry after you reach age 60, you may still be eligible for survivor’s benefits.

Social Security claiming strategies are important and complicated. There’s no way to explain all the various choices and factors in a few articles. Thus, it’s critical to stay aware of the rules and any changes to the rules. A good software program can help develop personalized strategies. And, it’s incumbent on each person to consult with a knowledgeable advisor. Your choice will affect you and those you love for the rest of your life.


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