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5 Social Security Claiming Options for Couples

The ‘file and suspend’ method is no more, but spouses can still tailor their benefit strategies

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Federico Gastaldi

One of the most important retirement decisions you and your spouse will make is when to collect Social Security benefits. As of this year, a once-popular way for married couples to make the most of that dual decision is fully off the table.

Social Security used to allow someone who was entitled to both a retirement benefit and a spousal benefit — an auxiliary benefit one partner can receive based on the other’s earnings record — to choose one or the other if they had reached full retirement age (FRA). That way, you could draw a spousal benefit first, then shift to your retirement benefit at age 70, when you became eligible for your maximum payment.

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Congress eliminated that option as part of a 2015 budget law. Lawmakers grandfathered in people who were close to retirement age, allowing “dually entitled” people born before Jan. 2, 1954, to choose between spousal and retirement benefits if they had reached FRA. Everyone else was subject to “deemed filing”: When they claimed Social Security, they were deemed to be filing for both spousal and retirement benefits and would get whichever amount was higher.

As of Jan. 1, 2024, anyone still covered by the old rules had turned 70, rendering the strategy moot and leaving couples with one less tool for maximizing their benefits.

What happened to ‘file and suspend’?

The option to choose between benefit types gave rise to a popular couples’ claiming strategy called “file and suspend,” which Congress also ended in that 2015 act.

With this method, one spouse — typically the higher earner in the house — filed for Social Security at FRA, the age when you can claim 100 percent of the benefit calculated from your earnings history. The other partner would then claim spousal benefits, which can be up to 50 percent of their mate’s full benefit amount.

The first spouse would ask Social Security for a voluntary suspension of benefits, allowing them to accrue delayed retirement credits and boost their future payments. In the meantime, the other continued to get spousal benefits. When each spouse reached 70, they would be able to collect their respective, now-maximized retirement benefits.

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“File and suspend was a great tool to use for maximizing Social Security back in the day,” says Chuck Czajka, a certified Social Security claiming strategist and founder of Macro Money Concepts, a financial services company based in Stuart, Florida.

Clients of his firm who used file and suspend “are doing really well,” Czajka says. Not only do they get bigger combined benefits; because the higher-earning spouse was able to get their maximum retirement benefit, the lower earner gets a bigger survivor benefit if they live longer, he adds.

The file-and-suspend window closed April 30, 2016; since then, if a retiree suspended their Social Security benefit, their mate’s spousal benefit was suspended, too. Since the start of this year, choosing to get a spousal benefit to delay your retirement claim is also prohibited, except in very limited circumstances.

There are still ways couples can tailor their Social Security strategy based on factors such as their age, health and finances. There’s no one right method; everyone must determine what works best for them. That takes planning and preparation, says Jim Blair, lead consultant for Premier Social Security Consulting in Cincinnati.


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Couples “plan for weddings, we plan vacations. This is something you’re going to receive the rest of your life,” he says. “Take some time and plan for it.”

Here are five options to consider.

Both spouses wait as long as possible

Up until age 70, “the longer you wait to claim, the more you’re going to get,” says Martha Shedden, president of the National Association of Registered Social Security Analysts. If both parties can wait that long, they’re going to maximize their total income for the rest of their lives, she says.

By how much? Say you were born in 1962. You can claim retirement benefits in 2024 — 62 is the minimum age — but you’ll get as little as 70 percent of your “full” benefit amount. You’ll get 100 percent if you claim at your full retirement age of 67. But you’ll get 124 percent if you put it off until age 70.

This strategy might be particularly beneficial in households where both partners have similar earnings records and spousal benefits don’t come into play (since you can only get them if your spouse had considerably higher earnings than you). Of course, it assumes you can afford to wait. People who can’t keep working until age 70 for health or other reasons, or who don’t have enough saved to tide them over, might need their Social Security income earlier.

Both claim early

Sometimes maximizing Social Security income isn’t a couple’s top priority. If you or your spouse has a large nest egg to draw from or other sources of steady income (a pension, for example), you might not need the biggest possible benefit to retire securely.

In this case, you could opt to stop work, claim Social Security early and spend your time doing other things. You’d still be getting some benefit income to supplement other assets and help maintain your lifestyle. Just be sure those other assets provide security for the long term, because you’re locking in that smaller benefit for the rest of your lives.

Split strategy

What’s best for one partner isn’t always best for the other. Sometimes it makes sense for one spouse to delay benefits while the other starts collecting early or at full retirement age. For example, if one spouse stops working to take on caregiving duties, they could claim their benefit to have an income while the other stays in the workforce longer and collects a bigger Social Security payment later.

Another reason one partner might claim early is if the couple have an adult child with a disability that developed before the age of 22. That child might qualify for benefits based on the parents’ work records, as long as one parent is already receiving benefits, Blair notes.

One partner might decide to keep working if they took a lot of time out of the workforce. Retirement benefit amounts are based on the highest 35 years of earnings; if you only worked 25 years, Social Security uses 10 years of zero earnings to figure your payment. A spouse who took a career break to, say, stay home with the kids “can work and replace those zero years with a positive [number],” says Marc Kiner, co-owner of Premier Social Security Consulting. The benefit of this plan is that one spouse who has met the 35-year threshold can collect benefits to help with expenses while the other is working and delaying their Social Security claim, building a bigger collective benefit for the couple when both are retired.

Spousal benefit switch

As noted above, if you are eligible for both a spousal benefit and a retirement benefit, Social Security won’t pay you both — you’ll get whichever benefit amount is higher. Couples with a wide income disparity can use that to their advantage.

Two things to remember for this strategy:

  • Since file and suspend ended, you can’t get spousal benefits unless your mate is receiving their retirement payment.
  • Even though the most you can get in spousal benefits is 50 percent of your mate’s retirement benefit, that might still exceed your own retirement benefit if they earned a lot more from work than you.

Under these circumstances, it can be to a couple’s advantage for the higher earner to wait to retire and the lower earner to start their retirement benefit early, Shedden says.

Say the lower earner is a wife, as is more often the case. “She can’t collect a spousal benefit until he starts collecting retirement, but she can start collecting her own retirement benefit so that the couple has income,” Shedden says. “When he starts collecting his retirement benefits, she’s going to get that bump up — that increased amount to the spousal amount.”

Maximize survivor benefits

Nobody wants to think about losing a partner, but it is something couples need to factor into their Social Security planning, Blair says.

“The higher earner’s benefit is what’s going to be paid if someone survives the other,” he says. If the late spouse claimed a reduced benefit at 62, the survivor gets a lower benefit as well. But “if they wait until 70 and earn those delayed retirement credits, that will increase the survivor’s benefit.”

If the higher-earning partner is significantly older than the other or has health issues that increase the odds of a shorter lifespan, a strategy to ensure the highest survivor benefit is particularly important. 

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