Social Security benefits can be a lifeline in retirement, especially if your savings are falling short. But it's important to make sure you're taking full advantage of your monthly checks and claiming all the money you're entitled to.
If you're married, there are a few strategies that can help ensure you're making the most of Social Security. You could be eligible for more money than you may think.
1. See if you're entitled to spousal benefits
Spousal benefits are generally available to those who are married to someone receiving Social Security checks. They're particularly helpful for those who either aren't eligible for their own benefits or are receiving very little from Social Security.
The maximum amount you can collect in spousal benefits is 50% of the higher-earning spouse's benefit amount at his or her full retirement age (FRA). So, for example, if you're not eligible for benefits but your spouse will receive $2,000 per month at his or her FRA, you can collect up to $1,000 per month in spousal benefits.
If you're eligible to receive more than half of your spouse's full benefit amount based on your own work record, you don't qualify for spousal benefits. And if you're earning your own benefits but your checks are smaller than what you'd receive in spousal benefits, you'll receive the higher of the two amounts.
2. Figure out a claiming strategy
If you and your spouse are both eligible for benefits, consider what age each of you will claim. You can begin collecting benefits at 62 years old or any age thereafter, but the age you file will directly affect the size of your monthly payments.
The only way to receive the entire benefit amount you're entitled to is to claim at your FRA -- which is either age 66, 67, or somewhere in between depending on the year you were born. If you claim before your FRA, you'll receive less money each month. By waiting until after your FRA to file, you'll receive your full benefit amount plus a bonus amount each month.
As you're determining what age to claim, it's wise to consider how your spouse's benefits will factor into your decision. Some couples may decide that the lower-earning spouse will claim at 62, for example, to provide some extra money earlier in retirement. The higher-earning spouse, then, can delay benefits until age 70 to max out his or her monthly payments.
It's also a good idea to think about what age each of you plan to retire. You don't necessarily have to retire and claim Social Security at the same time. But if you both plan to retire at 62, for example, think about whether you both want to file for benefits at that age or if one of you should delay Social Security to earn larger checks.
3. Consider how survivors benefits will affect your plan
Although it's not the most pleasant topic to think about, it's important to consider how your benefits will be affected if one of you passes away before the other.
Generally, surviving spouses are entitled to their deceased partner's full benefit amount after he or she passes. By being strategic about when you both claim benefits, you can make the most of survivors benefits.
For example, if the higher-earning spouse is significantly older, it may make sense for that person to delay benefits. If he or she does pass away first, then, the surviving spouse will earn larger checks than if the deceased spouse claimed earlier.
Nobody wants to think about end-of-life plans early on in retirement, but being prepared can help you maximize your benefits. This is especially important if your savings are falling short, because an extra few hundred dollars per month in survivors benefits could go a long way.
Social Security benefits can help you enjoy a more comfortable and financially secure retirement. The more prepared you are going into your senior years, the easier it will be to maximize your monthly checks.