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When to Claim Social Security Benefits (One Working Spouse)

Today’s Social Security planning topic is the most basic married couple scenario possible: one in which, of the two spouses, only one is eligible for his/her own Social Security retirement benefit–because the other was a full-time parent or volunteer, for instance.

(And before you ask, yes, we’ll discuss the more common two-working-spouses scenario in an upcoming post.)

First, we need to cover a little background information: spousal and survivor Social Security benefits.

How Spousal Social Security Benefits Are Calculated

When the non-working spouse reaches age 62, he/she can begin claiming a Social Security benefit simply for being the spouse of an eligible worker.

If a spouse waits until full retirement age to begin collecting spousal benefits, he/she will receive 50% of the worker’s Primary Insurance Amount. (A worker’s PIA is the amount of benefits that he/she would receive if he/she began collecting benefits at full retirement age.)

If the spouse begins collecting benefits before full retirement age, the spouse’s benefit is reduced based on how many months away he/she is from full retirement age. If you claim spousal benefits:

  • 1 year before FRA, the amount will be reduced by 8.33%.
  • 2 years before FRA, the amount will be reduced by 16.66%.
  • 3 years before FRA, the amount will be reduced by 25%.
  • 4 years before FRA, the amount will be reduced by 30%.
  • 5 years before FRA, the amount will be reduced by 35%.

Note: You cannot claim spousal benefits until the working spouse has filed for benefits as well. If the working spouse has reached FRA, he/she can, however, file for benefits and immediately ask to have payments suspended, thereby allowing them to continue to grow as if he/she had not yet filed.

How Social Security Survivor Benefits Are Calculated

The widow or widower of a person who worked long enough to be eligible for Social Security can claim a survivor benefit starting as early as age 60.

  • If the surviving spouse has reached full retirement age by the time he/she claims survivor benefits, the survivor benefit is 100% of the deceased worker’s benefit.
  • If, however, the surviving spouse claims survivor benefits prior to FRA, the amount will be reduced (to 71.5% of the deceased spouse’s benefit if the survivor claims benefits as early as possible–age 60–and increasing from there each month).

Note #1: If the (now deceased) working spouse claimed benefits earlier or later than FRA, the surviving spouse’s benefits will be based on the benefit that the deceased spouse was receiving rather than on their Primary Insurance Amount.

Note #2: If the surviving spouse was already claiming spousal benefits, survivor benefits will replace the spousal benefits rather than be added to them.

So When Should Each Spouse Claim Benefits?

For the non-working spouse, the decision of when to claim spousal benefits works in much the same way as the decision for an unmarried person (because there’s no survivor benefit to be considered). That is, it’s better to delay benefits if:

  • You’re primarily concerned with maximizing the amount you can safely spend per year, and/or
  • You expect to live longer than average.

And conversely, it’s better to take benefits early if:

  • You’re primarily concerned with maximizing the amount you leave to your heirs, and/or
  • You expect not to live longer than average.

Note: There is no benefit, however, to waiting beyond full retirement age to claim spousal benefits, as they do not continue to increase for waiting beyond that point.

And for the Working Spouse?

As we’ve discussed before, delaying Social Security is akin to buying an inflation-adjusted single premium immediate lifetime annuity–one that’s a heck of a deal for many investors because it comes with a significantly higher payout and lower credit risk than annuities you can buy in the private marketplace.

For the working spouse in our scenario, delaying Social Security (or filing for benefits and having payments suspended) is just like that–but better. In addition to an unusually high payout and unusually low credit risk, the annuity now comes with a significant survivor benefit as well.

Takeaway: The decision for the working spouse includes the same considerations as above, plus two additional ones:

  1. The survivor benefit makes it an even better deal than normal to delay benefits, and
  2. The longer you expect the non-working spouse to live, the better delaying benefits becomes.

Note: The above discussion assumes that neither spouse is disabled, that the couple has no disabled children or children under age 16, that neither spouse has a pension other than Social Security, and that neither spouse remarries. Also, as mentioned, we’re assuming that one spouse has no worker benefit of his/her own. If you claim both a worker benefit and a spousal benefit, the amount you receive will be equal to the greater of the two.

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  1. Excellent post Mike, well done! Very useful for folks making this key decision.

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