5 Tips to Maximize Social Security Benefits: Married Couples Edition

Married couples have more perks and more flexibility than single applicants when it comes to their social security benefits.

Spouses who may not have been the family’s primary breadwinner, or who may not have worked at all, may be able to claim social security benefits comparable to those received by their higher-earning spouse.

To help ensure you claim your maximum allowable social security benefit, here are five tips for married couples:

1. Understand the Survivor Benefit

The Survivor Benefit allows the spouse to receive the full amount of his partner’s social security benefit after her death.

This assumes, of course, that the survivor’s personal social security entitlement is less than his spouse’s (otherwise, the survivor would simply continue receiving his own benefit amount).

If John’s benefit is $1,500 and Mary’s is $2,000, then John will receive $2,000 if Mary dies. Mary will continue to receive $2,000 if John dies.

That’s the survivor benefit in a nutshell.

Understanding the survivor benefit means getting the most out of social security benefits for married couples.
This is a simplified representation of a hypothetical scenario. Rules vary from case to case. To ensure that you and your partner have accounted for all of the potential variables, talk to a Social Security representative.

If you have a larger social security benefit than your spouse, you will want to be very careful about when you begin receiving benefits.

If you elect to receive benefits before your full retirement age (FRA), then your monthly benefit amount will be lower for the duration of your lifetime.

This also means that if your spouse outlives you, her survivor benefit will also be lower.

In contrast, if you wait until age seventy to begin receiving your benefits—thereby maximizing your total benefit amount—then your partner’s survivor benefit will also be maximized.

Every couple will have to sort through the details of their own unique situations and will need to assess many variables. Variables such as how much larger one benefit will be in relation to another and what the average life expectancies of both parties are.

Take, for example, a couple—Beth and Greg.

Beth is four years younger than Greg and, according to the actuarial estimate, she’s likely to outlive him by six to eight years.

Beth spent the bulk of her working years as a stay-at-home mom, and her personal social security and other retirement benefits will not account for much relative to Greg’s.

Greg decides to wait until age seventy to claim his social security retirement benefits. By doing so he ensures that Beth’s survival benefit will be substantial (equal to his retirement benefit taken four years after his full retirement age).

Meanwhile, if they are in need of a bit of extra cash, Beth can begin receiving her own benefits early.

Beth doesn’t have to worry too much about her personal, diminished lifetime benefit, because her survivor benefit ensures that there is no circumstance under which she will be required to live on only her personal benefit.

Even if Greg dies before he begins taking benefits, Beth can still file to receive a survivor benefit based on Greg’s entitlement.

A good rule of thumb for married couples is to delay until age seventy the receipt of benefits for the higher income earner. Doing so will lay the groundwork for the highest survivor benefit possible.

2. Understand the Spousal Benefit for married couples

The spousal benefit entitles a person to earn a social security benefit worth at least half as much as her spouse’s benefit is worth.

Let's look at another hypothetical couple. Andrea is married to Roger and Roger is the family's primary breadwinner.

Roger's social security benefit is worth $3,000 per month and Andrea’s is worth $1,000 per month. This means Andrea will receive an additional $500 monthly as a spousal benefit, bringing the total household social security income to $4,500 monthly.

If Andrea’s social security benefit exceeds half the value of John’s, then no spousal benefit is given.

Just like regular social security benefits, if the beneficiary elects to receive benefits before his full retirement age, then those benefits will be reduced. If the beneficiary delays filing for the benefits until after he reaches full retirement age, then he’ll receive higher monthly payments when he does file.

3. Know how your benefits will change depending on when you elect to begin receiving them

If both you and your spouse can delay receiving social security benefits until at least age seventy, then you will likely maximize your total monthly benefit amount.

As a general rule, each year you delay receiving benefits from age sixty-two to age seventy, your total benefit amount increases by 8 percent.

This advantage is yet another reason to practice saving and long-term financial and retirement planning throughout your life.

The “waiting as long as possible to claim benefits” strategy is, of course, not an ideal approach for everyone.

Applying for benefits before reaching your full retirement age (FRA) can considerably reduce the amount received. This decision can also apply to spousal benefits, so understanding how early application can impact benefits for married couples is important.
Understanding how early application for benefits can impact spousal benefits is an important part of retirement planning.

If neither you nor your spouse is working in the years leading up to age seventy, and you don’t have a substantial reserve of cash for living expenses, then you will need to consider filing earlier and accepting a reduced benefit payment.

In some situations—for instance, when both you and your spouse are dealing with serious health challenges and have lower-than-average life expectancies—receiving social security early will actually result in more total benefits paid during the course of your lifetimes.

Also, given the recent repeal of the “restricted application” option for social security applicants, the benefits of waiting until age seventy will not be quite as significant.

The restricted application strategy allowed married individuals to begin receiving a spousal benefit while still delaying their own personal social security claim and adding value to their deferred personal benefits.

Unfortunately, this option will not be available for new social security recipients and may encourage some married couples to elect to start receiving one or both partners’ benefits prior to age seventy.

There is, however, an exception written into the law that allows persons born on or before January 1, 1954, to continue to use the restricted application strategy.

4. Know how your social security benefits are affected by divorce

Even if you’re divorced from your spouse, the person with the smaller social security benefit is still entitled to 50 percent of the value of his/her spouse’s benefit.

This is true so long as the couple was married for at least ten years.

In order for a divorcée to receive his or her benefit, he or she must be single and sixty-two years old or older.

If this is the situation you find yourself in, then you may contact the Social Security Administration directly to file your claim. You need not notify your ex.

When you take a benefit on the basis of your ex-wife or ex-husband’s earnings record, they will not find out unless you tell them.

Your claim has no effect on any claim they make with regard to social security.

Taking a spousal benefit as a divorced person is slightly different from taking the benefit while still married, because you don’t even need to wait for your ex-husband (or ex-wife) to file for his benefits to file for your own.

So long as you have been divorced for at least two years, you can take your own benefit using your ex’s work record, regardless of whether he’s filed any claims with social security on his own behalf.

5. Disregard “File and Suspend”

In addition to the “restricted application” strategy discussed under item three, the popular “file and suspend” loophole was also repealed following passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015.

These strategies are similar though not identical.

The restricted application strategy allowed for the claiming of spousal benefits in the event that the spouse was already claiming full benefits of his own.

The file and suspend strategy, by contrast, allowed the spouse to file for his own personal social security benefits and then immediately suspend their payment.

Despite the suspension, his spouse was still permitted to file for and claim her spousal benefit. Meanwhile, the suspended benefits, since they weren’t being paid out, would be subject to the 8 percent increase each year.

Currently there are no exceptions that permit the use of file and suspend. It’s banned.

There is, however, an exception permitting the use of the restricted application strategy. Retirees born on or before the first of January, 1954, are still entitled to use the restricted application strategy.

Again, this does not apply to the traditionally popular "file and suspend" strategy that is now disallowed.

The Bottom Line

Use the image below as a handy reference for the main factors that affect married couples when filing for social security benefits.


This article is a part of our ongoing series that navigates the world of retirement planning. The information contained herein should not be construed as ‘financial advice’ and is presented as the opinion of the author. ClydeBank Media does not offer financial investment services or retirement planning services. Please see our full financial information disclaimer.

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