Social Security and Your Spouse

Posted on 02/14/2014 by | AARP Wisconsin | Comments

Jean Setzfand, Vice President, Financial Security, AARP Education & OutreachBy Jean C. Setzfand, Vice President of the Financial Security team in the Education and Outreach group at AARP

This Valentine’s Day, do you want to do something really special for your spouse? Then skip the chocolates and flowers, and let’s talk Social Security. Okay, it’s not the most romantic topic, but if you plan well, your Valentine will feel your love for years to come.

For ease of our example, we assume the male in our married couple is the higher earner. It could easily be the other way around, though, with almost a quarter of married women earning more than their husbands today.

Let’s start with the basics. Normal retirement age for Social Security is currently 66 if you were born between 1943 and 1954. (It rises to 67 if you were born in 1960 or later). But “normal” doesn’t always mean “best.”

To get the highest benefit from Social Security, you can delay retiring up until age 70. Now, you might not end up in a position to do this, but it’s well worth it if you can. Your benefit goes up 8% a year until age 70.

On the other hand, you’re permitted to take Social Security beginning at age 62. But this can reduce your benefit by 25% or more. Here’s an example for someone with a $1,000 monthly benefit at normal retirement age:

Claiming age Monthly benefit
62 $   750
66* $1,000
70 $1,320

*For individuals born between 1943-1954.

So now you know how deciding when to claim affects you. Here’s how it affects your sweetie:

 #1. You’ll have higher annual income as a couple.

The longer you wait to begin taking your Social Security retirement benefit (up to age 70), the more income you’ll have as a couple. A few hundred dollars a month in additional income during retirement can have a meaningful impact on your budget.

#2. Her survivor benefit will be higher.

If you die first, your spouse gets 100% of your retirement benefit. If you take your benefits early, you’re leaving her with less monthly income for life. If you retire later, you’re giving her a monthly gift that keeps on giving. And, if you outlive her, you still have the higher benefit.

#3. She can start claiming before you retire.

Here’s a neat option if your spouse has lower lifetime earnings than you – it’s called the “file and suspend” strategy. You can file for your retirement benefit at your normal retirement age, but ask to receive it later. When you do this, the love of your life can file for spousal benefits on your work record. Then, when you turn 70, you can start receiving your higher benefit.

Social Security has a built in way of increasing retirement benefits for your spouse if she has earned less income than you over her lifetime. If her retirement benefit will be less than yours by 50% or more, she’ll get the higher amount. She can wait until her full retirement age to claim this “spousal benefit” to maximize her monthly income.

There’s a lot for couples to consider when looking at Social Security retirement benefit options. It’s not the easiest thing to do in the world, but then again, neither is love! But everything worthwhile is worth working on. Hmm. Social Security claiming is kind of romantic after all.

To learn more about Social Security, head on over to our AARP Social Security page. You can also find lots of information from the Social Security Administration.

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 Jean C. Setzfand is Vice President of the Financial Security issues team in the Education and Outreach group at AARP. She leads AARP’s educational and outreach efforts aimed at helping Americans achieve financial ‘peace of mind’ in retirement. She can be reached at jsetzfand@aarp.org.