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Social Security Claiming Strategies for Couples

Maximizing spouses’ monthly benefits comes down to patience, planning and, yes, math

A senior couple going over their home finances seated at the kitchen table.
Digital Vision / Getty Images

Strategizing for Social Security would be relatively simple if all spouses spent roughly the same amount of time in the workforce and earned roughly the same amount of money. Pretty much all they’d have to do is pick the best time for each to claim their roughly comparable retirement benefits.

In real life, of course, this is rare. One partner may have had a significantly more lucrative working life than the other. One may have delayed career pursuits for child-rearing or set them aside for caregiving.

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For such couples, maximizing Social Security income might mean combining retirement and spousal benefits — payments spouses can receive based on their mate’s earnings history rather than their own — and coordinating claims to optimize their payments.

That means weighing numerous variables, including both spouses’ age, health and timetable to retire, and understanding how each affects benefit options. There will definitely be math.

“When you have a couple, it gets complicated,” says AARP Financial Ambassador Jean Chatzky, founder and CEO of HerMoney.com. “You’ve got a higher earner, you’ve got a lower earner, typically. You’ve got people who may be able to claim on each other's records. And that means that there are hundreds, if not more, of ways that you could decide to claim.”

But understanding the range of potential claiming options can be a “game-changer” for households in which one spouse provided most or all of the income, says Malik Lee, founder and managing principal of Felton & Peel Wealth Management in Atlanta.

“That’s the power of navigating the Rubik’s Cube or the Pandora's box of Social Security,” he says.

Know your benefit — and theirs

Auxiliary benefits for people married to Social Security recipients have been part of the program since 1939, four years after its inception. Today, qualifying husbands and wives can receive a spousal benefit of about one-third to one-half of their mate’s monthly benefit amount, depending on their age.

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You can’t collect a spousal benefit if you are eligible for a retirement benefit of your own that is larger; when someone is eligible for two types of benefit, Social Security pays the higher amount. So, it’s “hugely important” for couples to keep tabs on their estimated future benefits at various claiming ages, Chatzky says.

With that information, available anytime if you have an online My Social Security account, spouses can figure out about what they’d receive on each other’s earnings record as well as on their own and plan accordingly.

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Here are some of the basics of spousal benefits.

  • In most cases, you must be at least 62 to claim them, and you and your mate must have been married for at least a year.
  • You can’t collect them unless your spouse is already receiving Social Security. If your spouse is getting their own benefit, you would be what Social Security calls dually entitled. In most such situations, you are considered to be applying for both retirement and spousal benefits at once, and you’ll get the higher of the two amounts.
  • At 62, you can receive a spousal benefit equal to 32.5 percent of your mate’s full retirement age benefit amount. The percentage increases each month you delay until you reach full retirement age (also called FRA, and currently between 66 and 67, depending on your date of birth), at which point you can get 50 percent of your partner’s benefit amount.
  • Retirement benefits also grow the longer you wait to claim them, with the minimum payment available at 62 and the maximum if you wait until 70. Having a mate draw spousal benefits on your record does not affect what you get from Social Security.

Spousal scenarios

Financial and retirement planners often advise delaying your Social Security claim as long as possible. For couples, especially those whose prospective retirements benefits are not too far apart, that’s the likeliest way to maximize payments.

“One of the biggest mistakes that I see is when both [spouses] try to take Social Security payments early,” often out of misplaced concern that the program is “going to go bankrupt tomorrow,” Lee says.

Mutually filing early for lesser benefits can increase couples’ risk of outliving their money and deprive them of the “inflation hedge” that comes with Social Security’s yearly cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), he adds.

“That may be what they need to do in some cases — if you're living paycheck to paycheck, if you have no other source of support,” Chatzky notes. “But if you have other sources for money, if you have choices, if you could potentially work a little bit longer, there are some serious considerations.”

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For couples with wide income disparities, there may be advantages in the lower-earning partner claiming their own Social Security earlier.

In this scenario, one person can be bringing in some benefit income while the other’s prospective payments get bigger. When the higher earner files, the lower earner switches to a spousal benefit if it’s larger than their own Social Security payment — what Lee calls “your step-up.”

Doing the math

Here’s how such a strategy might work. Suppose you would be in line for a $1,000 monthly benefit if you claim Social Security at full retirement age, but your spouse is projected to get $2,500. If you both file at your respective FRAs, you’d qualify for a combined $3,500 a month.

But suppose you file at your FRA and begin receiving those $1,000 payments while your mate waits until age 70. The delayed retirement credits Social Security gives people who put off filing past full retirement age boost benefits by 2/3 of 1 percent per month, or 8 percent a year. Depending on their year of birth, your spouse could get as much as $3,300 a month by filing at 70.

And you become eligible for a $1,250 spousal benefit —50 percent of your spouse’s full retirement age benefit. (Delayed retirement credits are not applied to spousal benefits.) You are now collectively drawing $4,550 a month, plus annual COLAs, for as long as you both live.

By waiting, the high earner also provides a larger survivor benefit for their mate, if they die first — delayed retirement credits do apply to survivor benefits claimed on a late spouse’s record.

That’s a basic example; there are numerous other factors that could affect filing decisions, including how long you can reasonably expect to live, how much you have in savings or whether one or both spouses plan to keep working. If you have a financial adviser, ask what software and other tools they use to help couples determine which among a plethora of claiming combinations could provide the biggest lifetime payout.

“This is on my to-do list as my husband and I close in on retirement and Social Security,” Chatzky says. “We've said to our adviser a couple of times, ‘Just run the numbers again and make sure that we're doing the right thing by continuing to wait.’ ”