Deciding when to claim Social Security is always complicated because there are many complex rules affecting how much income your benefits will provide.
For married couples, however, making the best choices regarding retirement benefits becomes even more challenging because of special rules that apply to spouses.
If you’re currently married and you or your spouse are contemplating starting retirement benefits, here are four key rules you should know first that could affect the money coming into your household during your later years.
1. Spousal and survivor benefits could provide additional income
Most people know they can claim Social Security benefits based on their own work history. But not everyone realizes they can sometimes get a larger check based on their spouse’s earnings.
The reality is, both spousal and survivor benefits are available for people who are currently married as well as for those who divorced after 10 years of marriage. If your spouse earned more than you did, these benefits may provide much more income than the checks your own career entitles you to. And, spousal and survivor benefits are an option even if you never worked or didn’t work enough to qualify for your own retirement benefits.
If you anticipate relying on these alternative benefit sources, that could affect the optimum time for you and your spouse to claim Social Security. As a result, you’ll want to research how your own benefit compares to one that could be provided through your spouse. Signing into your mySocialSecurity account to compare your own benefits with your partner’s can help you to decide what benefits will provide the most money.
2. Spousal benefits aren’t available until the primary earner has claimed them
If one partner will rely on spousal benefits, it’s very important to know that they won’t become available until the primary earner has started getting their own retirement checks.
Say, for example, that a husband earned much more money than his wife over the course of his career. The wife is entitled to spousal benefits equaling up to 50% of her husband’s benefit. So, if the husband was eligible for a $2,000 monthly check, she could receive up to $1,000.
However, the wife couldn’t claim spousal benefits until the husband began receiving his own retirement checks. She could claim her own benefits starting as early as age 62 regardless of what her husband is doing. But she’d have to wait to get that $1,000 check until her husband filed for his Social Security benefits.
Understanding this rule is important because it can affect when the primary earner should claim benefits. Often, it makes sense for the higher-earning spouse to delay a Social Security claim. That’s because waiting for longer results in an increased retirement check and increased survivor benefits. But, if the wife will get nothing until spousal benefits become available because she didn’t work enough to earn her own benefits, the husband may want to claim ASAP to unlock those spousal benefit checks.
3. Delayed retirement credits aren’t available for spousal benefits
If you’re claiming Social Security retirement benefits, putting off the start of them can be financially beneficial, as mentioned above.
See, every person has a “full retirement age” based on birth year. It’s between 66 and four months and 67. If you retire before it, monthly retirement checks are reduced due to early filing penalties. This is true whether you are claiming your own retirement benefits or spousal benefits. An early claim will always shrink your monthly payment.
If you wait beyond full retirement age, however, it’s possible to increase the size of your check-up until age 70 — but only if you’re claiming your own retirement benefits. If you’ll be getting spousal benefits instead, the delayed retirement credits that raise your payment aren’t available. No matter how long you wait, you cannot get more than 50% of the primary earner’s benefit.
For this reason, if you’ll be getting spousal benefits, there is no reason to put off claiming them after you’ve reached full retirement age. If you wait, you’ll leave money on the table and won’t get the reward of a higher check later.
4. Survivor benefits could be reduced if the higher earner claims benefits early
Finally, it’s important to understand that survivor benefits could be adversely affected if the higher-earning spouse claims their checks early.
Most married couples have two Social Security checks coming into their home — one for each partner. When one spouse passes, that person’s checks stop. However, survivor benefits are available and allow the surviving spouse to keep the greater of the two payments that are coming.
Say, for example, the husband was receiving $2,000 and the wife was receiving $1,000. Upon the husband’s death, the wife’s $1,000 check would stop and the $2,000 check would continue — now in the form of survivor benefits.
Since the last surviving spouse gets to keep the higher payment, it makes sense for the person in line for a larger Social Security check to do all they can to maximize their benefit. Ideally, this means waiting beyond full retirement age to claim it. If the husband had started getting checks early and shrunk them as a result, the wife would have been left with less.
Ultimately, all of these issues must be carefully considered as married couples decide when to claim Social Security. There are a huge number of different strategies that could be pursued to maximize lifetime benefits, including a higher-earning spouse waiting to claim benefits as long as possible while a lower earner claims first to bring some income into the household or, alternatively, the higher-earner claiming ASAP to unlock spousal benefits.
The right approach will depend on many factors including the earning disparity between the partners; the other income sources available; each partner’s health status; and whether both spouses are entitled to their own retirement benefit or not. Those who aren’t sure what’s best may wish to talk with a financial advisor to ensure they — and their spouse — have the funds they need for a secure future.
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