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Social Security for married couples: Optimizing your benefits

Senior couple using tablet on couch at home
MoMo Productions/Getty Images

For married couples, Social Security is just one part of retirement planning, but it's one that tends to raise no shortage of questions. Deciding when to start claiming your benefits is a universal question for those nearing retirement age. And it's not always a simple, straightforward answer. In order to get the most out of your Social Security benefits as a couple, you'll have many factors to consider including: your ages, Social Security full retirement age, career earnings, overall retirement savings and health status.

Choosing to take Social Security too soon may cause you to miss out on thousands of dollars of benefits over the course of your life. On the other hand, if you're struggling financially or in poor health, it may make sense to avoid waiting too long to take Social Security. The Social Security benefits that married couples can receive are also influenced by how much income each spouse earned and how many Social Security credits each received during their working careers.

Coordinating your Social Security benefits with your spouse's benefits can help you better plan for the retirement you envision. Read on for guidance and common scenarios applicable to married couples nearing age 62.

Why Social Security matters for married couples in retirement planning

Social Security is an important part of retirement planning because it's a guaranteed benefit for retirement income that lasts for as long as you live in retirement. Think of it as "longevity insurance." Social Security can be especially valuable if you live for a long time and spend the rest of your retirement savings. Deposits will keep arriving in your bank account every month, even if you're living in a nursing home or are unable to care for yourself.

When married couples are planning for retirement, they need to think carefully about optimal timing for each person to start collecting Social Security. If you claim these benefits too soon before reaching your full retirement age of 65 to 67, you might reduce your long-term income in a way that can hurt you if you happen to live well into your 90s.

Look at the total picture of your overall retirement savings and your other sources of retirement income, such as annuities, investments, pensions, whole life insurance or other assets. How does Social Security fit into your retirement plan? Are you counting on Social Security to be your main source of retirement income, or can you get by without it for an extra year or two?

Ideally, you may want to try to live off of some of your other retirement savings for a few extra months or years before you start claiming Social Security.

How married couples can optimize their Social Security benefits

At what age should you start claiming Social Security benefits? When you're married, this question takes on new importance. Seeing a few scenarios that married couples commonly use may help you and your spouse make the best decision.

1. Both spouses claim Social Security benefits at full retirement age

Bottom line: Waiting to claim Social Security until full retirement age guarantees 100% of your benefits. Benefits will decease by a significant percentage if you claim early.

While you can start getting Social Security benefits as early as 62, married couples can get 100% of their Social Security benefits by waiting to collect Social Security until they each reach full retirement age.

And if you have the option wait longer, you can get even more benefits over the rest of your life. For every month that you delay collecting Social Security beyond your full retirement age, you'll get an extra 0.67% per month, or 8.04% per year, added to your benefits. This can add up to some significant extra money in retirement. (See below for more details on how to increase your Social Security benefits by waiting longer to retire.)

All in all, if you claim Social Security before reaching your full retirement age, your benefits will decrease by a significant percentage. You can start getting that monthly payment earlier, but it will be a smaller check than if you had waited.

2. Both spouses claim Social Security benefits before full retirement age

Bottom line: This option may be most appropriate if you need the income immediately, such as if you're facing health challenges, despite the reduced benefit.

If you need the cash flow that Social Security income provides immediately following retirement, it may be the best option for you to claim before full retirement age (as early as age 62).

Additionally, if one or both of you are suffering from chronic health problems and may not live long enough to justify waiting, claiming as soon as you are able may be a great help even knowing that benefits will not be paid at 100%.

3. Higher-earning spouse waits to claim Social Security benefits

Bottom line: Claiming Social Security on the higher earner's record is a good strategy if you are looking to potentially optimize the highest survivor benefits and/or the lower earning spouse never had a job that was covered by Social Security taxes.

If you need to decide which spouse will start collecting Social Security first, or if one spouse should wait a few years, it generally makes sense to use a "split strategy," which means that the higher-earning spouse waits to claim benefits. This is because the higher-earning spouse will have a larger benefit amount, and as that amount increases over time, the total dollar amount will be higher.

When a higher-earning spouse waits to collect Social Security, that person's Social Security survivor benefits grow, as well. Your spouse can receive up to 50% of your retirement benefit amount given they are full retirement age. If they are not yet full retirement age, there will be a percentage reduction from age 62 until they reach full retirement age. Your spouse can receive this benefit even if they never earned Social Security wages, and this spouse benefit does not affect or reduce your own retirement benefits.

When you apply for Social Security, make sure you understand the benefit amount each spouse would qualify for based on their individual earnings record. Then, check to see if the lower-earning spouse can get extra benefits from your record.

If you're the lower-earning spouse, you might also want to consider working a few more years to boost your Social Security benefits—and increase your overall retirement savings in the process. This can help you attain a more comfortable retirement, especially if you outlive your spouse.

4. Both spouses wait to claim Social Security benefits to earn delayed retirement credits

Bottom line: If you and your spouse are in good health and happy to keep working, or if you have other sources of retirement income that you can live off of for a few more years before claiming Social Security, a delayed benefits strategy can help you receive significantly more money over the course of your retirement.

If you have adequate retirement assets from non-Social Security sources, such as well-funded 401(k)s, Roth IRAs, brokerage accounts or traditional pensions, you might want to consider both spouses waiting to claim Social Security to earn delayed retirement credits. This is an ideal position to be in: It gives you flexibility, and it lets you maximize up to 132% of your Social Security benefits.

As a hypothetical example, if you wait until age 68 to retire, your Social Security benefit will be 108% of your full retirement benefit. Rather than receiving $1,500 per month at age 67, waiting a year would give you $1,620 per month. Wait another year until age 69, and your benefit increases again to 116% of the full retirement benefit—or $1,740 per month. If you can wait until age 70 to retire, your Social Security benefits will be 124% of your full retirement benefit amount—or $1,860 per month.

Keep in mind that age 70 is the longest you can wait to receive delayed retirement benefits. If you wait longer than that to claim Social Security, your benefits will not increase any more.

How do you choose the right option?

What's the "best" option for Social Security for married couples? There is no one right answer for what married couples should do about Social Security. It all depends on age, income, overall retirement savings, expected Social Security benefits, health status, life goals and plenty of other factors.

Some people may have a thriving career and good health and feel happy to keep working until age 70 to maximize their retirement benefits, while others will want to retire early. Some people may need to care for an ill spouse or aging loved one, and they could take that Social Security income earlier than they expected to do so. Other people might get laid off from their job and have to start collecting Social Security benefits.

Social Security claiming strategies are complicated, but know that you don't have to navigate Social Security alone. In addition to relying on each other, couples should connect with a Thrivent financial advisor, who has the tools to run various scenarios that factor into your unique circumstances to help you build the Social Security strategy that works best for you and your family.

Thrivent financial advisors and professionals have general knowledge of the Social Security tenets. For complete details on your situation, contact the Social Security Administration.

Thrivent and its financial advisors and professionals do not provide legal, accounting or tax advice. Consult your attorney or tax professional.