Making Social Security decisions is relatively simple for seniors filing single tax returns. Assuming modest or no earned income, retirement benefits can begin as early as age 62. For each year of waiting to start, annual benefits increase by approximately 7%–8%. (After full retirement age, now 66 or 67 depending on year of birth, the presence of earned income will not affect Social Security benefits.)
By age 70, however, the waiting game must stop; seniors who begin then receive the maximum benefit. Regardless of the starting date, Social Security payments generally increase each year, to keep up with inflation, and they last for the recipient’s lifetime.
Social Security decisions become more complex for married couples, especially if one spouse has earned much more than the other and is entitled to far greater benefits. Each spouse has a choice: take benefits on one’s own earnings record or on the spouse’s record.
Suppose Al is entitled to $2,000 per month in benefits at full retirement age in 2020. His wife Beth is the same age, and her retirement benefit is $1,200 per month. The basic spousal benefit is half of the other spouse’s benefit, so Beth would be better off taking her own $1,200 benefit rather than a $1,000 spousal benefit (50% of Al’s $2,000 benefit). If Beth’s own benefit would be lower, such as $720 per month, she would be better off with a $1,000 monthly spousal benefit.
The plan described above might work if both spouses are the same age and both want to start Social Security benefits at full retirement age. This is often not the case, however, so couples have to make choices.
One strategy would be for the lower-earning spouse (i.e., Beth) to start at 62, the earliest date possible, while Al delays until age 70 to receive a maximum benefit. Assuming that Al has not yet started retirement benefits, Beth will not be able to claim a spousal benefit, so she will be limited to her own retirement benefit.
Moreover, starting at age 62, Beth’s benefit would be only 75% of her age 66 benefit, or $540 per month, instead of $720. She would collect $6,480 per year from Social Security, plus any future cost-of-living adjustments (COLA), a total that will help the couple pay their bills until Al turns 70. At that point, Al’s monthly Social Security payment will be $2,640 per month (a 32% boost for waiting four years before starting), plus any COLAs in the interim.
Between their benefits, Al and Beth could receive $3,180 per month ($38,160 per year) from Social Security, plus COLAs. This would go on as long as they both live and be partially tax sheltered under current law, providing some assurance that they will not run out of money if they live to advanced ages.
Note that Al’s waiting until age 70 will not increase Beth’s monthly check. If Beth starts at her full retirement age, she will receive $1,000 per month, which is half of the $2,000 per month Al will receive by starting at full retirement age. Waiting longer will not boost Beth’s spousal benefit to half of Al’s increasing benefit. Therefore, Beth should not wait beyond her full retirement age to begin collecting a spousal benefit.
Another possibility is for Beth to start at age 62, collecting a reduced benefit based on her own work history, as illustrated above. When Al starts to collect his own benefit at age 70, Beth can compare her own reduced Social Security ($540 per month) to a spousal benefit based on Al’s work history ($1,000 per month) and claim the spousal benefit if it is greater.
Depending on how the numbers work out, it can make sense for one spouse to start with her own benefit and later switch to a spousal benefit. For this type of switch to work, Beth must claim her own benefit when Al has not yet started his Social Security benefits, then claim a spousal benefit when Al files for retirement benefits.
A limited window exists for people who reached age 62 before January 2, 2016. They can restrict a Social Security application to their spouse’s benefit and delay filing for their own retirement as late as age 70 so their own benefit can grow.
Continuing this example, Al is receiving $2,640 per month, plus COLAs, after age 70, while Beth’s Social Security payments are an inflation-adjusted $540. If Beth dies first, Al will continue to receive lifelong payments of $2,640 per month, plus COLAs.
Conversely, suppose Al is the first spouse to die. Will Beth receive only $540 per month? No. The surviving spouse will always receive the greater of the two Social Security benefits, so Beth will receive an inflation-adjusted $2,640 per month for the rest of her life.
Therefore, having one spouse—especially the one with higher lifetime earnings—delay Social Security as long as possible serves two purposes: the couple will have more income after age 70, and the survivor will enjoy a larger “pension” from Uncle Sam.
In order for Beth to receive Al’s full monthly payment as a survivor’s benefit, she must have reached full retirement age. Younger widows and widowers can collect as early as age 60 (50 if disabled), but starting before full retirement age would result in smaller monthly checks.
Other requirements may apply to Social Security survivor’s benefits. To receive them, a widow or widower generally must have been married to the deceased individual for at least nine months before death; a deathbed wedding will not generate a lifetime payout from Social Security. Exceptions to the nine-month rule include death by auto accident or other disasters in that time frame.
Supporting the Survivor
Based on the above, comprehensive planning might call for encouraging the higher-earning spouse to delay as long as possible. Not only will the couple have more income during a long retirement, but the surviving spouse will have more—possibly much more—monthly income. Waiting to start Social Security may wind up effectively providing some “life insurance” or “longevity insurance,” in the form of higher lifelong cash flow, for the lower-earning spouse.
Such insurance may be especially valuable to survivors. After a two-year transition period, widows/widowers who do not remarry will file as single taxpayers. Assuming taxable income remains approximately the same, with the loss of one Social Security check offset by a single person’s lower standard deduction, the survivor likely will be in a higher tax bracket, and thus owe much more in tax.
For example, Carl and Diane have $75,000 in taxable income this year. Filing a joint return, this couple is in a 12% tax bracket. If Carl dies a few years from now, and his income does not substantially change in that time, Diane will be in a 22% bracket. Her tax bill will likely be higher, so the larger Social Security benefit would be welcome.
After a divorce, both spouses naturally will be entitled to Social Security retirement benefits, based on their own work history. In addition, spousal retirement and survivor’s benefits may apply.
For example, Ed and Fiona were married but are now divorced. Ed’s work history entitles him to larger Social Security benefits than Fiona would receive on her own. To qualify for retirement benefits on Ed’s work history while Ed is still alive, Fiona must be unmarried, be at least age 62, and have been married to Ed for at least 10 years.
Here, the rules for spousal retirement benefits are generally the same for Fiona after a divorce as they were when the couple was married. Fiona will not receive more than half of Ed’s retirement benefit, and any benefits Ed earns after full retirement age will not help Fiona. Filing before full retirement age will produce a smaller benefit. Therefore, Fiona should take her own retirement benefit if it is larger than the spousal benefit she would receive on her own work record.
Divorced spouses do, however, have one advantage. Even if Ed has not applied for Social Security benefits, Fiona may still be able to receive retirement benefits on his work history. To do so, Fiona must meet all the above qualifications and have been divorced for at least two years.
In this example, Fiona may receive survivor’s benefits from Social Security if Ed is the first spouse to die. As is the case with a still-married couple, Fiona could receive the equivalent of Ed’s retirement benefit after he dies. Often, that means a larger monthly payment for a divorced ex-spouse. Again, the marriage must have lasted at least 10 years for Fiona to receive a survivor’s benefit. Remarriage will not affect this benefit if that wedding occurs after Fiona turns 60, but Fiona can receive only one benefit—the largest—even if she is entitled to multiple benefits from multiple sources. Other rules for surviving ex-spouses may apply if Fiona is disabled or if she is caring for Ed’s young (under age 16) child.
Suppose that Ed gets remarried to Gloria and dies in a car crash a year later. Gloria would receive a widow’s benefit, as described above, but what would happen to Fiona’s Social Security survivor’s benefit? In brief, nothing. Survivor’s benefits paid to the surviving spouse will not reduce the amount paid to a surviving ex-spouse, so Gloria and Fiona could both receive lifelong payouts of Ed’s monthly retirement benefit amount, if all qualifications are met. There is no limit to the number of ex-spouses who can receive benefits on one person’s Social Security record, as long as the former marriages all last 10 years or more.
Keep in mind that Social Security rules can be complex. This article covers the basics, but it is always a wise move to ask Social Security about specific taxpayer circumstances
Paperwork for Spouse’s or Divorced Spouse’s Benefits
The Social Security Administration may ask applicants to provide documents to show that they are eligible for these benefits. The required documents might include:
- Birth certificate or other proof of birth
- Proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status if the applicant was not born in the United States
- U.S. military discharge papers for applicants with military service before 1968
- W-2 forms and/or self-employment tax returns for the prior year
- A final divorce decree, if applying as a divorced spouse
- A marriage certificate
For most documents, such as birth certificates, original paperwork must be presented. These documents will be returned to the applicant.