How to Maximize Social Security Through Spousal Benefits

Spouses born before 1954 can still take advantage of a strategy to boost Social Security retirement benefits.

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Question: If I take spousal benefits at 66 (my full retirement age), can I collect my own Social Security benefits at 70 and collect delayed retirement credits?

Answer: Yes, but only if you were born on or before January 2, 1954. Anyone born on or after that date is prohibited from using this claiming strategy, known as restricting an application for spousal benefits, because the government is phasing it out.

In addition, you must have reached full retirement age, and your spouse must have already claimed benefits, which means he or she must be at least 62 years old. If you are 66 and your spouse is 60, for instance, you would have to wait at least two years to claim spousal benefits.

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Here’s why filing a restricted application is a smart strategy, assuming you qualify: If you can afford to delay filing after you reach full retirement age (when you’re eligible for 100% of the benefits you’ve earned), your benefits will grow 8% every year until you reach age 70 (after that, there’s no advantage to delaying).

For example, suppose you qualify for a $2,200 monthly benefit, and your spouse, who is at full retirement age, qualifies for a $1,400 benefit. You file a restricted application to claim spousal benefits, which are equal to up to half of your spouse’s full retirement age benefit—in this case, $700 a month. Your combined benefits will be $2,100 a month until you hit age 70. At that time, you can switch to a benefit worth $2,904. You and your spouse will then bring in a total of $4,304 a month, plus annual cost-of-living adjustments. And that higher benefit is the one the surviving spouse will keep after the first spouse dies.

If you want to file a restricted application for spousal benefits only, you may need to speak to someone high up the chain of command at your local Social Security office. Some Social Security representatives may be unaware of the strategy or think it no longer applies to anyone. You may need to speak to a supervisor to resolve the issue.

If you don’t qualify to file a restricted application, there are other ways to get the most out of your combined Social Security benefits. One option is to have the lower-earning spouse file before full retirement age, even though that will mean a reduction in benefits (up to 30% if the spouse files at age 62). Use that income, along with income from other sources, to pay expenses while the higher earner’s benefits—which will get the biggest boost from delayed retirement credits—continue to grow until the higher earner turns 70.

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.