How to Maximize Social Security Benefits for Married Couples

One decision can impact your lifetime Social Security Retirement Benefits by tens of thousands of dollars!

How much anyone can receive from Social Security depends on three primary factors:

1. Your earnings record

2. When you elect

3. How long you expect to live

Since you can’t go back and change your earnings record, and you have little control over how long you are going to live. Determining your expected lifetime benefit largely depends on when and how you elect benefits.

Choosing the right Social Security election for you, may be the most important decision of your retirement.

Think about it, if you elect early you will get a lesser benefit for a longer period of time. If you elect later, you will get a larger benefit for a shorter period of time. If you are single, you can do a simple “break-even” analysis to determine whether to take early or wait. But for married couples, the decision is much more complex and break even calculations will usually give you the wrong answer, costing you benefit dollars.

Why? Social Security offers three distinct benefits for married people:

1. Retired Worker Benefit – Based on your own earnings record

2. Spousal Benefit – Provides your spouse with a benefit once you claim your own benefit

3. Survivor Benefit – Provides your spouse with a benefit after your death

When you file prior to full retirement age, you are deemed to have filed for all benefits for which you are eligible. At full retirement age and beyond, you have several options for electing a limited benefit for a period of time, then later converting to a larger benefit at some point in the future. A recent Boston College study suggested that these options could represent over $10 Billion in unclaimed Social Security benefits. For an individual family, it’s not uncommon to receive an additional $20,000 to $40,000 or more in benefits.

Married couples can take advantage of two basic techniques to maximize their lifetime benefits.

1. A restricted application, for example, a higher-earning spouse, who may want to wait until age 70 to collect his/her own benefit may be able to file at 66 for only the benefit available under his/her spouse’s work record, while still allowing his/her own benefit to build delayed retirement credits. At age 70, he/she would switch to his/her own benefit. Alternatively, a lower earning spouse could restrict his or her application to only spousal benefits while continuing to claim delayed credits on his or her own earnings record.

2. A “file and suspend technique.” In 2000, The Senior Citizens’ Freedom to Work Act was enacted which allows workers to earn delayed retirement credits after filing for benefits if he/she request that they not receive benefits during a given period. As a result, a higher-earning spouse can file for benefits, then immediately suspend the benefit, and continue to earn delayed credits. In the process, he/she will have made his spouse eligible for spousal benefits under his/her earnings record.
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