If you’re married, it’s critical that you maximize the money you and your spouse will each receive from Social Security over both of your lifetimes. That’s because most married couples will receive a very large portion of their total retirement income from Social Security. For most couples, this money usually represents more than half of a couple’s total retirement income, and often three-quarters or more.
Let’s explore how married couples can get the most from Social Security. For background, let’s first review the relevant features of Social Security benefits for couples.
Social Security basics for married couples
Social Security offers special benefits for married couples that were designed many decades ago when a typical household consisted of one working and one nonworking spouse. When it came time for the working spouse to claim Social Security benefits, the nonworking spouse could apply for a spousal benefit that was as much as half of the benefit of the working spouse. This spousal benefit is still in place today, and also applies to same-sex marriages, which are recognized by Social Security.
This special spousal benefit continues for the lifetime of the spouse who is receiving it; however, if the working spouse dies first, then the spousal benefit stops and the surviving spouse’s benefit bumps up to the monthly amount that the deceased, working spouse was receiving.
Note that if both spouses worked and paid into Social Security sufficiently to qualify for their own earned benefit, then each spouse would receive whichever benefit was greater: either the one they earned through working or the special spousal benefit.
What is the maximum Social Security benefit for married couples?
The maximum benefit you and your spouse will receive depends on your year of birth and the age at which you retire. For example, for people born in 1957, if you retire at your full retirement age in 2024, which is age 66 and 6 months, your maximum monthly income would be $3,822. However, if you reach age 62 in 2024 and start Social Security benefits, your maximum monthly income benefit would be $2,710. And if you reach age 70 in 2024 and start Social Security benefits, your maximum monthly income would be $4,873.
Note that these amounts are only for individuals who paid Social Security taxes for at least 35 years and earned at least the maximum income covered by Social Security, which is $168,600 in 2024. If you earned less than the maximum amount, your Social Security income will be lower than the above (or maximum) amounts.
Before you retire, it’s important that you understand how much you’re likely to receive from Social Security so you can actively choose your retirement date based on this information. To estimate your monthly benefit, go to Social Security’s official website.
Because of the rules that apply to married couples, together, they’ll receive more income than the amounts shown above. Those amounts will also depend on the spouses’ ages and whether one or both spouses earned their own Social Security benefit.
How can you maximize your benefits as a couple?
Because there can be hundreds of possible Social Security claiming strategies that are dependent on when each spouse starts their Social Security income, it can be difficult for married couples to figure out how to maximize their joint income from Social Security. That task is best left to a computer that can easily analyze all the combinations. Fortunately, there are many online programs that can help married couples determine an optimal strategy for claiming their benefits.
One of my favorites is Open Social Security, which is free. Using this site, for each spouse you input the birth date, gender, and monthly earned benefit if you start benefits at your full retirement age (this amount is called the “primary insurance amount” and you can find it by using the Social Security calculators mentioned previously). The Open Social Security system then displays the optimum age for each spouse to start their Social Security benefits and provides illustrations of the lifetime benefits they might receive.
If you’re not comfortable using an online program to help you maximize Social Security benefits, then it’s well worth the money you would pay to hire a specialist to help you. By doing so, it’s likely you’ll earn far more benefits over your lifetime compared to the fee you’ll pay for advice.
When should both spouses claim social security?
Ideally, each spouse would claim Social Security benefits at the age at which they would maximize their joint lifetime benefits. It’s important to point out that these ages could be different from the ages at which each spouse retires. Often, couples start their Social Security benefits together when they both retire, which might not maximize their lifetime benefits.
Here’s a common example of choosing the best way to maximize benefits: In this example, the husband is a few years older than his wife, he was the primary wage earner, and both spouses are in average health or better. In this common situation, the optimum strategy is often to have the husband begin his Social Security benefits at age 70, with the wife starting her Social Security benefits at her full retirement age, or even earlier. This is commonly called a “split strategy,” which usually maximizes a couple’s benefits compared to starting their Social Security benefits at the same time.
Of course, the best claiming strategy for you is based on your specific situation. For instance, maybe in your case, the wife is older than the husband, or the wife was the primary wage earner. Or maybe one or both spouses is in poor health, which might encourage you to claim benefits as early as possible. In all these situations and any other, it’s hard to generalize an optimum strategy, which is why you want to use an online Social Security program or work with a qualified advisor.
What can you do to bridge the Social Security gap?
Some people want to retire before the optimum age at which to start their Social Security benefits. How can you bridge the gap between your retirement age and the optimum age? There are two possibilities:
- The most favorable financial strategy would be to continue working, but part time to earn just enough money to replace the Social Security benefit you’re delaying.
- If you don’t want to work part time, then you can use a portion of your retirement savings to pay yourself an amount equal to the monthly Social Security benefit that you’re delaying. This is called a “Social Security bridge strategy” and can be a very good use of your retirement savings.
By using creative strategies to bridge the gap, you can substantially boost your lifetime retirement income.
Can unmarried, long-term partners, benefit from the same benefits as married couples?
Usually, unmarried couples won’t receive the special spousal benefits described previously. However, Social Security might recognize common-law marriages if they’re recognized by the state you live in. If this describes your situation, you’ll want to learn the rules that apply to you.
As you can see, there are many details that married—and unmarried—couples should consider when claiming their Social Security benefits. If you optimize your benefits, you have the potential to add tens of thousands of dollars to your retirement income over the course of your lifetime, maybe even more than $100,000. Before you make any decisions, take the time to learn how to get the most income from Social Security or work with a professional who could help you.