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2 Ways Your Social Security Decisions Can Affect Your Spouse

By Christy Bieber – Dec 12, 2021 at 8:00AM

Key Points

  • Married couples have more possible Social Security-claiming strategies.
  • Spouses need to be considered when deciding when to file for benefits.
  • A claiming decision could affect a spouse's eligibility for benefits and the amount they receive.

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You need to think about your spouse's finances when you make your claiming choice.

Under the best of circumstances, making a decision about when to claim Social Security benefits can be really complicated. That's because you can start your checks any time within an eight-year period between ages 62 and 70 -- but when you begin benefits will have a big impact on how much monthly income they provide. 

For married couples, things become even more confusing, because the decisions each spouse makes can affect the other life partner. So before you claim Social Security, you should be aware of these two ways that your choice of when to start your checks could impact your spouse.

Two adults hugging in a field.

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Your claim could affect survivor benefits

When you become eligible for Social Security, your spouse becomes eligible for survivor benefits on your work history if you pass away first. Survivor benefits could equal either:

  • Up to 100% of the amount your benefit would be at full retirement age (FRA) if you die before claiming benefits. Your spouse could end up reducing this amount if they claim survivor benefits before their own full retirement age. 
  • The benefit you were receiving upon passing away.

If you shrunk your potential Social Security benefit by starting checks early, your surviving spouse could end up with less money from survivor benefits. On the other hand, if you delayed filing for benefits until 70 and increased your benefit as a result of your choice, your surviving spouse would end up with a larger monthly income after your death. 

This matters only if your spouse's survivor benefits are higher than the retirement benefit they'd receive under their own work record. If your spouse earned a lot more money than you, their benefit would be higher than survivor benefits. They can either collect their own benefit or get survivor benefits -- not both. In this case, they'd be better off getting their own higher checks and not relying on survivor benefits at all.

As a result, you should worry about this issue only in situations where you earned more money than the partner you're leaving behind. If you're concerned your surviving spouse will be left in the lurch with too little money because your income was higher, aiming to delay your claim until 70 would help protect your beloved.

2. Your claim could open up the door to spousal benefits

Survivor benefits aren't the only benefits your spouse could claim on your work history. They could also get spousal benefits. These could equal up to 50% of the amount of your benefit at FRA (although your spouse could shrink this amount if they claim early). And, of course, they can get these benefits while you're still alive.

There's a catch when it comes to spousal benefits, though. Your husband or wife can get them only if you have filed for your benefits and are getting your own checks already. So if you try to delay your claim to maximize monthly income or increase survivor benefits, your partner may be forced to wait for their spousal benefits to start.

If your spouse is eligible for their own benefits, they can claim then as early as 62 and just wait to start spousal benefits until you've filed for your own checks. This can make a lot of sense, as they'll bring in some income from Social Security while you wait to maximize your benefits. But if they aren't eligible for their own benefits at all, you may want to claim early to open the door to your partner getting some Social Security income ASAP. 

Ultimately, you'll have to think about whether it's better to try to maximize survivor benefits with a delayed claim or enable the start of spousal benefits as soon as you can with an early one. A lot depends on when you want to retire, whether you can do so without Social Security income, and what benefits your spouse qualifies for on their own. Be sure to think about these issues carefully when you make your choice. 

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