Social Security Strategies for Married Retirees

Try these tips to boost retirement benefits for you and your spouse.

When it comes to Social Security, marriage has some significant benefits. You can claim benefits based on your own earnings or choose to receive up to 50% of the amount your spouse is eligible to receive. While spousal benefits were created to provide a safety net for stay-at-home moms, even dual-income couples can use them to get more from Social Security.

File and Suspend

Suppose, for example, that you’re the higher earner and want to increase your benefits by waiting until age 70 to file. Let’s also suppose that your spouse will receive higher payments with spousal benefits, but can’t collect them until you file for your own. You can get around this problem by filing for Social Security benefits when you reach full retirement age—which for most boomers is 66—and then asking Social Security to suspend them. As long as your spouse is at least 62, she can receive spousal benefits. You, meanwhile, can continue to earn delayed retirement credits until you start receiving benefits at age 70.

Restrict an Application

Here’s another scenario: You’re the higher earner and you’ve reached full retirement age, but your earnings aren’t so much higher that your spouse will be better off with spousal benefits. In this case, you could boost benefits through a strategy known as restricting an application. Here’s how it works: Your spouse claims benefits first. Then, you file for benefits based on her earnings. You’ll be able to collect spousal benefits while your own benefits continue to grow. You’ll receive 50% of your spouse's full-retirement-age benefit even if she's not yet 66. When you switch to your own benefits at 70, your spouse can switch to a spousal benefit based on what you were entitled to receive at full retirement age.

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Combine Both Strategies

And what if you and your spouse had similar lifetime earnings? You can increase your benefits by combining these two strategies. Here’s how it works. When one spouse—let’s assume it’s the wife—reaches full retirement age, she files for benefits and asks to have them suspended. The husband then files a restricted application for spousal benefits. Doing so enables him to receive spousal benefits from age 66 to 70. At 70, he switches to his own benefit and she ends suspension of hers. Because both spouses waited until age 70 to claim their own respective benefits, they will have earned the maximum in delayed-retirement credits.

Whether you're married, single, divorced or widowed, check out more strategies for boosting your Social Security benefits.

Sandra Block
Senior Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Block joined Kiplinger in June 2012 from USA Today, where she was a reporter and personal finance columnist for more than 15 years. Prior to that, she worked for the Akron Beacon-Journal and Dow Jones Newswires. In 1993, she was a Knight-Bagehot fellow in economics and business journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has a BA in communications from Bethany College in Bethany, W.Va.