Many, if not most, of my clients are retired, or are planning to retire within the forseeable future.  One of the most important decisions that is required for the vast majority of Americans is when to start taking their Social Security payments from the U.S. government.




Among the most difficult issues involving the decisions surrounding Social Security are the options available to a spouse trying to decide whether to claim Social Security based on their own employment record, or whether to use the other spouse’s employment record. 

A mistake, either in the decision made as to which spouse’s work record to use, or in the decision regarding the best beginning date to maximize benefits, can cost you thousands of dollars during your retirment.

When to Begin Receiving Benefits

If you elect to begin your benefits before your Full Retirement Age (“FRA”), based on your own work history, your monthly benefit will be as much as 25% less than the amount you will receive if you start at your FRA.  If you wait until age 70 to begin your benefits, your check could be as much as 50% more than beginning at your FRA.  Obviously, the longer you wait to begin your benefits, the more your monthly payments will be.  Equally obviously, by waiting until later to start receiving benefits, you will have forfeited the benefits for those years that you could have, but chose not to receive benefits. 

Which beginning date you should use to maximize your Social Security benefits will vary depending on your own circumstances such as your need for the funds earlier in your retirement, your employment status, your other sources of income, and your health. You may want to consult with an  experienced financial advisor who can help you evaluate the options based on your own circumstances.

Which Option Should You Chose if You Are (or Were) Married?

If you are, or have been, married you must choose between (1) claiming benefits based on your own work record, if you wokred in the paid workforce, or (2) claiming benefits based on the work record of your current, former, or deceased spouse.  As more baby boomers retire, the number of couples forced to make this decisoin will increase dramatically.  This decision, if not made properly, can result in the loss of thousands fo dollars of Social Security benefits that you otherwise could be entitled to receive.  Once made, the decision is irrevocable, so you must be careful to make the right decision the first time.

You can obtain all of the relevant information about your options at the Social Security website.  Again, consultation with an experienced financial advisor can help you evaluate the relative value of each of your options. 

Gail Buckner, a Retirement and Financial Planning Specialist at Franklin Templeton Investments, has prepared a chart that very clearly lays out – side by side – the various options that can be a good tool.  I have reproduced Ms. Buckner’s chart below as she presented it in her column “Your $ Matters.” 

If ‘Spouse A’ is

If ‘Spouse A’ is:

If ‘Spouse A’ is:

 


current spouse


divorced spouse


widow(er)/
surviving divorced spouse

Earliest age to
begin (reduced) benefits 
(1)

62 (1)

62 (1)

60 (2)
50, if disabled

 

If re-marry


N/A


– You must be UNmarried when you file for spouse benefits.

-Generally lose benefit until new marriage ends by divorce, death or annulment (3)


-Must be UNmarried when you file for widow(er)’s benefits or your new marriage must be one that SS can disregard (4)

-Can continue to receive benefit if re-marry after age 60/ 50, if disabled

Impact on benefit amount paid to worker

None

None

None

If Spouse A has not reached FRA and continues to work

Benefits will be reduced by $1 for every $2 you earn over that year’s limit

 

Benefits will be reduced by $1 for every $2 you earn over that year’s limit

 

Benefits will be reduced by $1 for every $2 you earn over that year’s limit

 

Special considerations

-Worker must be receiving benefits for Spouse A to receive

-Must have been married at least 10 years

– Not entitled to receive higher benefit on your own work record

-Worker is receiving benefits

– If worker is not receiving benefits but qualifies, you must be divorced for at least two years

– Must have been married at least 9 months prior to the worker’s date of death, however, there are exceptions

-If begin widow’s benefit at age 60, at age 62 you can switch to benefits based on your own work record if this is higher

-If you switch after your FRA you will receive Delayed Retirement Credits

-If you re-marry, at age 62 you may switch to spousal benefits based on your new spouse’s record, if this is higher

Maximum Benefit

50% of Worker’s PIA

50% of Worker’s PIA

100% of Worker’s PIA

If Worker Started Benefits Prior to FRA

Spousal benefit is not affected

Spousal benefit is not affected

The maximum benefit is limited to what the workers would receive if he or she were alive

1. Spouse benefit reduction chart found at: http://www.socialsecurity.gov/retire2/agereduction.htm

 

2. Widow(er)/Surviving Divorced Spouse benefit reduction chart found at: http://www.socialsecurity.gov/survivorplan/survivorchartred.htm.  Click on the year that corresponds to when you were born to find the fractional amount by which your benefit will be reduced based on the precise age at which you apply for benefits.  For instance, if you were born from 1945-1956, your Full Retirement Age (FRA) is 66.  You will receive 100% of your survivor’s benefit at this age.   However, if you start receiving benefits the month you turn 60, your survivor’s benefit will be reduced to 71.5% of this amount (i.e. 28.5% less).  If you begin benefits when you turn age 60 and 8 months, it will be reduced to 74.7% (i.e.25.3% less), etc.

 

3. Even though you re-marry, in certain cases you can continue to receive benefits based on the work record of your former spouse.  This would be the case if, for instance, your new spouse is someone of the opposite sex who is receiving widow(er) or parent’s benefits.

 

4. Social Security can disregard a new marriage under certain circumstances.  An example would be in the case of a disabled widow(er) or a disabled surviving divorced spouse who is at least age 50 but not yet 60 who re-married after age 50 and was disabled at the time of the re-marriage.

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