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Consider Spousal and Survivor Benefits in Deciding When to File for Social Security – Part II

By Jane Young, CFP EA

The decision on when to start taking Social Security benefits gets more complicated for couples who need to consider the interdependency of their benefits.  If one spouse has earned significantly less and expects a much lower benefit, spousal and survivor benefits can have a big influence on when to file.

A lower earning spouse can file for the greater of 100% of their own or 50% of their spouse’s Social Security benefit.  In most cases you are eligible to begin receiving spousal benefits at age 62.  However, if you take benefits before your full retirement age (FRA) you will receive a reduced benefit.  You cannot file for spousal benefits until your spouse has filed.   

If you are at least 62 and want to begin taking benefits and your spouse has not filed, you can file on your own record and later switch to spousal benefits, once your spouse files.   

There is no benefit in delaying spousal benefits beyond your FRA.  Even if your spouse delayed taking benefits until 70 your spousal benefits will never grow beyond your spouse’s benefit at his or her FRA.

This is not the case for survivor benefits.  If your spouse passes you will be entitled to the greater of your benefit or a survivor benefit equal to 100% of what your spouse was receiving or would have received upon filing.   You can receive full survivor benefits at your FRA or reduced benefits beginning at age 60 (50 if disabled).  You can receive survivors benefits at any age if you care for a qualifying child.

In most cases, to qualify for survivor benefits you must have been married for at least nine months.   If you remarry before age 60 you cannot draw survivor benefits; however, you can regain eligibility if the marriage ends.  

In a marriage where both partners had substantial income, spousal and survivor benefits may have minimal influence on when to begin Social Security.  However, in situations where there is a large disparity in income and age, spousal and survivor benefits have a significant impact on the filing decision.  

The decision on when to take Social Security often comes down to the breakeven age when it is financially beneficial to delay taking benefits.  When considering survivor benefits the decision is not solely based on the life expectancy of one spouse but on the couple’s joint life expectancy (when both spouses will pass).  The joint life expectancy is likely to be much longer, making the decision to delay taking benefits more favorable.  If the lower income partner is much younger this may extend their joint life expectancy even further.

The final decision on when to file for Social Security comes down to your unique financial situation, the health of both spouses, your projected life expectancy and what helps you sleep at night.