How couples can maximize Social Security benefits

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For married couples, claiming benefits "is a household decision, not an individual decision," says Paula McMillan, a certified financial planner in Greensboro, N.C. And under a couple of scenarios, it makes sense for one spouse (or widowed spouse) to claim benefits before full retirement age.

You're the lower-earning spouse


If you were born on or before Jan. 1, 1954, you can still take advantage of a strategy known as restricting an application to increase the combined payout of your benefits as a couple.

Here's an example of how it works: One spouse files for Social Security benefits before full retirement age, while the other -- who must have already reached full retirement age -- files a restricted application to collect spousal benefits only, which are equal to half of the first spouse's full benefits. The second spouse waits until 70 to collect his or her own benefit, thus taking advantage of delayed retirement credits.


Even if you're ineligible for that strategy, it may make sense for the lower-earning spouse to file as early as age 62, says Jim Blankenship, a CFP in New Berlin, Ill.

While that spouse will see a 25 percent reduction in benefits, the couple can use income from the lower-earning spouse's benefits, along with other sources of income, to pay expenses, enabling them to delay the higher earner's benefits until age 70.

You're eligible for survivor benefits

You can file for Social Security based on your late spouse's earnings as early as age 60 (50 if you're totally disabled). Your benefits will be based on your deceased spouse's benefits when he or she died. If your spouse died before filing, your payout will be based on the amount your spouse would have earned at full retirement age.

To receive 100 percent of your late spouse's benefit, you must wait until your own full retirement age to file; otherwise, it will be reduced by a certain amount for every month you file your claim before your full retirement age.

But whether you wait until full retirement age or file earlier, claiming survivor benefits won't affect your own payout. Claiming survivor benefits -- even if they're smaller than your own -- allows your own benefits to continue to grow. At age 70, you can switch to your own benefits, which will have been enhanced by the delayed retirement credit.

Survivor benefits are also available to divorced spouses whose former spouses have passed away, although many don't realize they're eligible, says Jayson Owens, a CFP in Anchorage, Alaska.

If you were married for at least 10 years, you can claim benefits as early as age 60 based on your late ex's earnings record. As is the case with surviving spouses, this strategy offers a way to postpone claiming your own benefits until age 70, Owens says.


Remarriage won't affect your eligibility for survivor benefits as long as you're at least 60 years old (50 if you're totally disabled).

Sandra Block is a senior editor at Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. Send your questions and comments to