Social Security filing strategies for married couples

By Shelly Gigante
Shelly Gigante specializes in personal finance issues. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications and news websites.
Posted on May 18, 2018

If you are married and ready to retire, you’ll need to consider the strategy you use to file for Social Security benefits carefully. The age at which both you and your spouse begin collecting benefits will affect not just the amount you receive as a couple today, but the amount of money available to the surviving spouse.

Because both spouses can claim benefits at different times and because the lower earning spouse may receive spousal benefits based on the higher earner’s work record, there are dozens of ways for married couples to claim Social Security. To maximize your family’s benefit, you must tailor your filing strategy to your unique income needs.

“The goal of a married couple should be to provide the largest survivors benefit,” said Marguerita Cheng, a financial advisor with Blue Ocean Global Wealth in Potomac, Maryland. “It’s important for married couples to plan and coordinate when they start collecting Social Security.”

Planning for your joint life expectancy

If you and your spouse earned roughly the same in the workplace, by contrast, it might make sense for both of you to delay claiming benefits to maximize the amount of your future monthly payout and the amount of benefit the surviving spouse will one day receive.

To do so, however, you’ll need sufficient assets to cover your expenses after you retire, but before Social Security kicks in. That requires planning to ensure that your withdrawal rate from resources like your IRA, taxable brokerage account, or personal savings does not put you at risk of outliving your savings. A financial advisor can help.

Timing is everything

The timing of taking Social Security benefits is a key variable for everyone, but the impact of that decision is potentially more significant for married couples, who must plan for their joint life expectancy.

Couples with similar lifetime incomes and assets to support their cost of living until age 70, for example, may both opt to delay claiming Social Security until age 70 to increase the size of their future monthly payments.

But if you earn more than your spouse, you may opt to delay filing for benefits, allowing your payout to grow by 8 percent per year until your full retirement age — which is either 66 or 67 depending on your birth year — until age 70. Your lower earning spouse could then start collecting spousal benefits equal to half of your benefit at full retirement age. That guarantees the surviving spouse a higher Social Security check for life.

Spouses (even those who never worked) may claim a Social Security retirement benefit based on either their own earnings record or 50 percent of their spouse’s benefit as calculated at full retirement age — whichever is greater. You must be at least age 62 to file for spousal benefits or have a qualifying child in your care who is under age 16 or receiving Social Security disability benefits. You are not eligible for benefits until your spouse files for his or her own benefit first. Spousal benefits also do not accrue delayed retirement credits, so there is no advantage for recipients to delay claiming benefits beyond their full retirement age.

Take note, however, that if you start taking benefits before your full retirement age, which again is either 66 or 67 depending on your birth year, the amount of your benefit will be permanently reduced by a percentage based on the number of months until your full retirement age.

For those collecting a benefit based on their spouse’s earnings record, the amount they would receive at age 62, for example, could be as little as 32.5 percent of the worker’s full retirement benefit. And, if the number of months before your own full retirement age exceeds 36, then the benefit you collect is reduced an additional 5/12 of 1 percent per month.1

Of course, there may be good reasons for either of you to file before your full retirement age. Health concerns, a reduced life expectancy, and financial need are all important considerations.

Different rules may apply

Be aware that not all filing strategies are available to all retirees. The rules pertaining to married couples have changed.

If you were born on or before January 1, 1954, for example, you may choose to receive only the spousal benefit at your full retirement age and delay receiving your own retirement benefit until a later date. That allows your own benefit to accrue delayed retirement credits, which increases the amount of your monthly benefit down the road. You could then switch at age 70 (when the benefit of delaying any further disappears) from receiving a spousal benefit to receiving your own higher benefit.2

Those born on or after January 2, 1954, no longer have that option. When you file for one benefit, you are automatically considered to have filed for all benefits to which you are entitled.

“For couples who were born on or after January 2, 1954, there are a number of different ways to file for Social Security benefits,” said David Freitag, a financial planning consultant for MassMutual. “”Frequently, these filing strategies can result in wide cumulative value differences depending on life expectancy. These different ways to file for benefits are totally related to your age and when you start benefits.”

A hypothetical case study

In the following example, we’ll compare two of these strategies to demonstrate the difference that filing strategy can make.

For simplicity, this example reflects only limited benefit filing options and variables. In fact, there are many factors that could have an impact on the amount of your Social Security retirement benefit. The benefit filing option you choose should be based on the realities of your personal situation.

No matter how and when you choose to begin collecting your benefit, it’s a good idea to contact the Social Security Administration (SSA) ahead of time. That way, you can get the information you need to make an informed filing decision.

Bob and Mary

Bob and Mary, both 65, have been married for 40 years. Both have a family history of longevity and expect to spend many years in retirement. Their full retirement age is 66, at which point they can collect the full amount of Social Security benefits to which they are entitled.

They have multiple filing options to consider.

At age 66, for example, Mary could file for retirement benefits based on her own earnings record without earning delayed retirement credits, while Bob files a restricted application for a spousal benefit based on Mary’s earnings record, leaving his own retirement benefit to accrue delayed benefits of 8 percent each year. At age 70, Bob could then stop his spousal benefit and switch to his own benefit, which will have increased by 32 percent. If Bob dies first, Mary would receive the equivalent of his benefit, which includes the delayed retirement credits and any cost-of-living adjustments.

Over the course of their combined lifetimes, such a filing strategy can potentially increase the amount of their cumulative benefits by more than $200,000.

If Bob and Mary file for benefits early at age 65 instead, they both receive a permanently reduced benefit, which could reduce the amount of their combined benefits by more than $1,000 per month by the time they reach age 70. Mary would also receive a reduced survivor’s benefit if Bob dies first. Still, filing for benefits early may make sense for Bob and Mary if they have sufficient assets saved to support their lifestyle or their health becomes compromised.

Important information for same-sex couples

The SSA encourages same-sex couples who get married to contact their office right away to protect against the loss of any potential benefits. The federal government recognizes same-sex couples’ marriages in all states, and some nonmarital legal relationships (such as some civil unions and domestic partnerships) for purposes of determining entitlement to Social Security benefits.3

If you already receive retirement benefits, you must tell the SSA if you get married, enter a nonmarital legal relationship, or divorce because your marital status may affect your entitlement to benefits.

If you are in a same-sex marriage or non-marital legal same-sex relationship, or a surviving spouse of a same-sex marriage or non-marital legal same-sex relationship, Social Security encourages you to file right away for benefits. This allows Social Security to determine if you are entitled to any spousal or survivor benefits.

Take the guesswork out of your Social Security filing decision.

For many retirees, Social Security is their biggest source of guaranteed income. As such, your filing decision is too important for guesswork.

Learn more about your retirement benefits at www.ssa.gov or contact your local Social Security office.

A good starting point is to set up your “my Social Security” page on www.ssa.gov. This is an easy and secure way to view your estimated benefits and earnings history. The SSA will use this information when it calculates your benefit, so be sure that it accurately reflects your work history.

Once you and your spouse have set up your individual “my Social Security” pages, your financial professional can help you explore different filing strategies. With this information, you will be better able to make an informed Social Security filing decision.

Learn more from MassMutual…

Filing for Social Security retirement benefits

What people should know about Social Security

Setting financial goals: Retirement

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The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual and its subsidiaries, employees, and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel.Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of MassMutual.

1 Social Security Administration, “Social Security Benefits: Benefits for Spouses.”

2 Social Security Administration, “Benefits Planner: Retirement: Benefits for Your Spouse.”

3 Social Security Administration, “Social Security: Same-Sex Couples.”

The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual and its subsidiaries, its employees, and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of MassMutual.