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Social Security benefit rules seem to be designed for maximum complexity and confusion. With multiple benefits, requirements, and amounts depending on specific scenarios, it’s impossible to cover all of it in one go. Since the information on SSA.gov leaves something to be desired, here’s how to maximize your spouse’s benefits.
First, the Obvious – Retirement Benefits
Let’s assume your spouse paid into the Social Security system long enough to be eligible for retirement benefits. Let’s also assume that s/he has at least an average life expectancy.
To maximize her/his own retirement benefits, your spouse should delay claiming retirement benefits until age 70. For every year of delay from early retirement age to age 70, his/her benefits will permanently increase by ~8%.
Spousal Benefits – Affected by When Your Spouse Files, not When You Do, Except…
If you haven’t filed for retirement benefits, your spouse can’t file for spousal benefit based on your record. Once you file for retirement benefits, her/his spousal benefits will be up to 50% of your full retirement benefit.
When you file for your own benefits doesn’t affect your spouse’s spousal benefits. Whether you filed early, at full retirement age, or up to age 70 s/he gets the same spousal benefit.
However, your spouse’s age when filing for spousal benefits under your record does affect benefits. The earliest is age 62, though this will permanently reduce the benefits. To maximize the benefits, your spouse should wait until full retirement age (67 if born in 1962 or later). There’s no point in delaying beyond that point – spousal benefits don’t continue to increase like retirement benefits.
One caveat is that spousal benefits don’t get reduced if your spouse cares for a child under 16 (or who receives disability benefits).
Survivor Benefits – Affected by When Both of You Claim
To maximize your widow(er)’s survivor benefits, delay claiming your retirement benefits. The 8%/year permanent increase applies not only to your retirement benefits, but also to your widow(er)’s survivor benefit. Those can be 100% of your retirement benefits.
Once you’ve maximized the baseline amount by delaying your claiming to age 70, your widow(er) should also delay claiming survivor benefits. Based on a chart from the Social Security Administration, and assuming s/he was born in 1962 or later, your widow(er) would get 71.5% of your retirement benefit if s/he files at age 60, 79.6% at age 62, and 100% at age 67.
Other Requirements and Limits
To further complicate the picture, there are other requirements and limits, such as:
- Your widow(er) must have been married to you for at least 9 months to claim survivor benefits.
- You must be married for at least a year for your spouse to be eligible for spousal benefits.
- To be eligible for spousal benefit under your record, your ex-spouse needs to:
- Have been married to you for at least 10 years;
- Divorced you at least two years ago; and
- Not have remarried (what s/he gets doesn’t affect you or your current spouse).
- Your ex-spouse can file for spousal benefits starting at age 62, even if you haven’t yet filed for retirement benefits.
- Your family generally can’t receive more than 150% – 180% of your retirement benefit. Benefits received by your ex-spouse aren’t included in this limit.
The Bottom Line
Social Security is very complicated, with a quasi-infinite number of moving pieces and scenarios. The above is just to give you a sense of the factors that affect your spouse’s spousal and survivor benefits. To maximize your benefits and those of your spouse/widow(er), use a specialized calculator.
As The Balance points out, survivor benefits can be equivalent to a $50k – $250k life insurance policy. This can be very helpful to ensure your widow(er)’s finances, especially important if you’re the main breadwinner.
While claiming your retirement benefit early or late doesn’t affect your spouse’s spousal benefits (at least once you’ve started those retirement benefits), that timing does affect survivor benefits.
About the Author
My career has had many unpredictable twists and turns. A MSc in theoretical physics, PhD in experimental high-energy physics, postdoc in particle detector R&D, research position in experimental cosmic-ray physics (including a couple of visits to Antarctica), a brief stint at a small engineering services company supporting NASA, followed by starting my own small consulting practice supporting NASA projects and programs. Along the way, I started other micro businesses and helped my wife start and grow her own Marriage and Family Therapy practice. Now, I use all these experiences to also offer financial strategy services to help independent professionals achieve their personal and business finance goals.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended to encourage any lifestyle changes without careful consideration and consultation with a qualified professional. This article is for reference purposes only, is generic in nature, is not intended as individual advice and is not financial or legal advice.