Maximizing Your Lifetime Social Security Benefits As a Married Couple

By Jonathan Peterson

Copyright © 2018 by AARP. All rights reserved.

If you’re a married couple and you have a little financial flexibility, you need to work together to maximize your lifetime benefits. You’re not living in separate bubbles — who claims what and when affects the other.

Claim and suspend is no longer available

The claim-and-suspend strategy (also known as file and suspend) provided a way for married couples to maximize benefits received over a lifetime. A breadwinner could file for Social Security at full retirement age but immediately “suspend” the claim, potentially allowing a spouse to begin collecting spousal benefits while the suspended retirement benefit increased at the rate of 8 percent a year. But in late 2015, Congress voted to prohibit this marital claiming strategy after April 30, 2016.

Claim now, claim later is also banned for many

Congress also put major limits on a marital claiming strategy known as a “restricted application” or double dipping, and it is now available only to those born before January 2, 1954 (turning 62 before January 2, 2016). In this approach, one spouse claims spousal benefits when she reaches her full retirement age. Later, ideally when she turns 70, she switches from spousal benefits to her own earned retirement benefit, which will have grown to its maximum amount because of the delay in claiming it. This strategy potentially worked for couples who each had earned retirement benefits.

But married couples still can coordinate — and you should

Even though marital claiming strategies have been restricted, married spouses still have an advantage that single individuals don’t enjoy: They can coordinate their Social Security claims in a way that works best for their household. Yes, it’s common sense. Still, couples do not always stop and think about how their claiming decisions may affect each other.

Married or not, there are several variables for everyone to consider in claiming benefits, including age, financial need, how long you expect to live, and whether you get more peace of mind from locking in the income sooner or waiting for a bigger benefit later.

But couples have more flexibility than singles to create a strategy that involves two streams of Social Security. They also have more reason to think hard about survivor benefits. Here are some things married couples can keep in mind about claiming Social Security:

  • It sometimes makes sense for lower-earning spouses to claim their own retirement benefits sooner, while the primary earner holds off claiming, potentially until age 70. This approach works best if the main breadwinner has a much larger retirement benefit than the lower-earning spouse. (But keep in mind that there is a significant reduction for early claiming.)
  • If both spouses have earned retirement benefits, and they can afford to wait, they will be rewarded with significantly higher Social Security income. It’s simple math: The increases for delayed retirement claiming are magnified if they apply to two members of the family rather than just one.
  • Life expectancy is always a consideration in when to claim, but it cuts both ways. If you do not expect to live much longer, it may make sense to claim Social Security sooner. If you expect to live a long life, this is an added reason to hold off claiming if possible.

But married partners have another question to consider: If the primary earner dies, how much will the widow or widower need Social Security to support his or her standard of living? The greater the need, the more reason the primary earner has to delay claiming. This may be a greater concern for wives than for husbands. The survivor is typically a woman, and women on average live longer than men do, so they need to finance a lengthier period of old age.