Social Security Couples Strategy

By Justin Pritchard, CFP®

Married couples can potentially get two Social Security benefits in retirement. But what’s the best way to take advantage of the benefits available to you? Should you both claim at the same time (or claim early, or delay)?

There are several strategies couples use when planning for retirement. So, let’s review the most important aspects along with several popular strategies and rules of thumb. Then, you’ll have more clarity on when you and your spouse might want to take benefits.

On this page:

  • Survivor benefits
  • Split strategy (62 & 70)
  • Both delay
  • Both claim early
  • Other thoughts for couples’ strategies

Continue reading below, or get similar information from this video.

Plan for Survivors

Survivor benefits are among the most valuable features of Social Security. When one person dies, the surviving spouse can take over the largest benefit coming into the household. Because of that, it’s critical to make sure that “the largest” benefit is as big as possible.

In many cases, this means having the higher earner delay taking benefits for as long as possible. Your benefit amount increases with each month you delay, and those increases continue until age 70.

So, to maximize benefits, the higher earner may want to wait until age 70 to claim.

This is conventional wisdom when it comes to Social Security couples strategy, and it’s helpful because one source of income will go away when the first person dies. We want the survivor to have as much income as possible from that remaining Social Security benefit.

A surviving spouse can essentially take over their deceased spouse’s benefit—assuming that benefit amount is higher. If your benefit is more than a deceased spouse’s benefit, you just continue with your own benefit. But if your spouse’s benefit was higher at the time of death (or if it would have been higher if your spouse claimed benefits immediately before death), you step into that higher benefit.

All that said, you always need to consider longevity for both people (and other factors) as you make decisions.

Rule of Thumb: One Claims at 62, the Other at 70?

People often suggest a “split” spousal strategy as a rule of thumb. But like most rules of thumb, it’s far from perfect.

This strategy says married couples should have the higher earner claim at 70 while the other claims as soon as possible (age 62).

Potential Benefits

Survivor benefit: We’ve already reviewed the benefits of having the higher earner delay claiming: You improve the chances of a survivor having sufficient income.

What are some other reasons for using this strategy?

Cash flow sooner than later: By having the lower earner claim early, you get some cash flow coming into the household as soon as possible. That’s not necessarily a good thing, but it can be helpful as you pay expenses. With income from Social Security, you can minimize withdrawals from your savings and investments, helping to keep those assets intact. It’s especially helpful to minimize withdrawals during sharp market downturns.

Spousal benefit: Assuming both spouses are of a similar age, this split strategy can ensure that you maximize spousal benefits. We might assume that the lower-earning spouse (who claims at 62) has a small benefit compared to the higher earner. Once the higher earner turns on their benefit, that action “unlocks” the spousal benefit, allowing the lower earner to get as much as possible of the higher earner’s FRA benefit. But if that spousal benefit begins before the lower earner reaches their own FRA, they’ll get less.

With a 62/70 strategy, there’s a decent chance that the lower-earning spouse will be at FRA by the time the higher earner reaches age 70.

Important: The lower earner will not get 50% of the higher earner’s benefit with this strategy. Due to early claiming, the lower-earning spouse will get a permanently reduced benefit. Yes, they can still get a full spousal “offset” or top-off, but that goes on top of a reduced benefit.

Potential Drawbacks

Reduced benefits: Again, having the lower earner claim at 62 results in reduced benefits. People often assume that spousal benefits are 50% of the highest-earning spouse’s benefit. That’s not true if you claim early (which is the case at age 62 or any other time before full retirement age). You don’t get to “switch to a spousal benefit,” as many people believe.

If you don’t need the cash flow, having one spouse claim early might not make sense.

In fact, you might get significantly less out of Social Security if you use this strategy and both live a long life. The rationale behind the split strategy depends on average life expectancies, and sometimes it’s valid. But if you both live longer than average, you’re better off going a different route.

So, is there any reason to believe you might live longer than average?

Still working? This strategy might also work out differently than expected if you take benefits and continue to earn income from work. Social Security might reduce your payout due to the earnings test, leaving you with less cash flow than you might expect.

Tax planning: Plus, you might not want income from Social Security if you’re pursuing tax strategies. For example, you could draw down assets from pre-tax accounts or do Roth conversions in years when you have a relatively low income. Those strategies can help you:

  • Reduce required minimum distributions (RMDs) later in life.
  • Reduce the amount of Social Security included in your taxable income (maybe).
  • Avoid higher healthcare costs due to a high income.

But if you’re getting Social Security income, those dollars reduce the effectiveness of tax planning strategies. Your Social Security benefit effectively “gets in the way” by adding unwanted income to your tax return.

Instead of having somebody claim early, using a Social Security bridge strategy might make more sense.

Expecting Longevity?

Longevity is one of the most important aspects of Social Security claiming strategies. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most difficult because your lifespan is unknown.

That said, you might have some idea of whether or not you can expect to live a long life. For example, if you’re relatively healthy and don’t smoke, you might live longer than average. Other factors also affect longevity.

If you’re going to live longer than average (mid-80s, let’s say), it may make sense to delay taking Social Security. That’s because you get a bigger benefit by delaying, and with longevity, you’ll get that bigger benefit for more years. If you claim early instead—locking in a reduced benefit for life—and live a long time, you leave money on the table.

Note that this isn’t about judging anybody for claiming early. If it makes sense for you to claim at 62 or any other age, do what you think is best. But if you’re planning for longevity, delaying Social Security can be an excellent idea.

Chart showing when to claim Social Security based on expected longevity and investment returns. Used with permission.

Various Strategies

The best way to figure out when to claim is to complete a detailed retirement analysis. Still, it can be helpful to review some basic approaches at a high level and discuss the pros and cons.

Both claim early: If you both expect to live relatively short lives, it may make sense for both to claim early. That way, you get money coming into the household as early as possible. The idea is that you may not get benefits for many years, and you might prefer to preserve assets to pass on to others. This might make sense if you both have known, diagnosed health issues.

Both delay claiming until 70: This is the unappealing and boring strategy that often makes a lot of sense. If you expect to live a relatively long life, it typically pays off for both of you to delay claiming. This might work in your favor if both of you live into (or beyond) your late 80s, for example. It can be counterintuitive to pass on your benefits for those years between 62 and 70, but you might thank yourself later.

Both claim at FRA: You can also both take benefits at full retirement age (FRA). Because you can claim anytime between 62 and 70, there isn’t necessarily anything special about FRA. But that age can be significant, especially when spousal benefits are involved or if you’re planning to earn income from work while you take benefits. Plus, you avoid the biggest reductions of claiming at 62.

Other ages: You can use any configuration you want, and it’s wise to choose ages based on your specifics. You might align your benefits with your retirement date, for example. But remember that you don’t have to start taking benefits when you stop working—it might make sense to spend from your assets for a while. Likewise, you might coordinate your benefits with other income sources or tax planning strategies.

Develop Your Strategy

There are several ways to evaluate different strategies. Retirement planning calculators may allow you to run different what-if scenarios, allowing you to understand how different choices affect your finances.

You can also try OpenSocialSecurity, a free online tool. But be sure to note the assumptions and adjust things to match your situation. This tool will often suggest that couples use the strategy with ages 62 and 70 (if you keep the default assumptions). But as you change longevity assumptions, you may get dramatically different results.

It’s critical to use multiple tools if you’re doing this yourself, and you should scrutinize the output of any calculator carefully. What assumptions were used? Do you agree with those assumptions? Is the math correct? Are different sources giving you different answers?

While you can never pick the perfect strategy in advance (without knowing how the future will unfold), you can make educated guesses if you spend time researching and playing with numbers.