Social Security Part 2: Claiming Strategies for Couples and Divorced Spouses

Category: Financial and taxes in retirement

Note: This is the 2nd in a 3 part series called “Social Security: What You Think You Know Might Hurt You”.  Part 1 provided an overview of the program, how your benefit is calculated, and strategies for optimizing your benefits. This segment will concentrate on strategies for couples to maximize their benefits,as well as the rights and benefits for divorced spouses. The final section of this article discusses some of the more common misconceptions/FAQs about Social Security.

May 8, 2012 — As we discussed in Part 1, the decision to file for Social Security benefits is a personal one that means balancing several inputs. But for married couples, these factors get even more complicated. One spouse might be younger than the other. One person in the couple often has a higher earning record for social security, so he or she stands to collect more. They each might have different ideas about when to stop working and start collecting. And finally, and most importantly – when the first spouse dies the surviving spouse is entitled to their own benefit or that of the spouse, whichever is larger. Although people don’t tend to think about it, most of these same factors apply to the disability and survivors benefits that Social Security pays.

We attended a recent seminar organized by the Oakley Wing Group, where guest speaker Kurt Czarnowski offered 3 very smart claiming strategies for couples. We will share them here, using Ward and June Cleaver, a couple familiar to just about every baby boomer, as examples.

1. File and Suspend
Update Nov. 15, 2015: The Budget Bill signed into law in late 2015 dramatically changes the popular “File and Suspend” strategy discussed here. People who can take advantage of it by April 1, 2016 are grandfathered, but depending on your birth date, the strategy has gone away for other folks. See our article “How the New Social Security Claiming Rules Affect You” for more.
Ward reaches Full Retirement Age (66) and files for Social Security benefits, then suspends (thus declining to take benefits at this time). If June is at least 62 she can now file and be eligible to start collecting the spousal benefit. Her benefit will not increase from this point, other than from COLAs.
Strategy: Ward’s benefit will continue to increase at 8% per year while he does not collect, and if he is working, he might further increase his benefit. Yet June can start collecting now, bringing money into the family without any downside to the higher earner’s potential benefit.

2. Claim Some Now, Claim More Later
Ward files at any age he is eligible and starts collecting. June waits until she reaches Full Retirement Age and begins collecting the spousal benefit (50% of Ward’s). By delaying her own benefit, and if she continues to work, she can increase her monthly benefit. See our article “How the New Social Security Claiming Rules Affect You” for how this strategy changed in 2015.
Strategy. The lower earner can start collecting early, preserving and maximizing the higher earner’s higher benefit.

3. Combination to Maximize Benefits for Both
Assumes both spouses have reached Full Retirement Age. Then one spouse files for benefits and immediately suspends (does not start collecting). The second spouse can now collect the spousal benefit on the first spouse. Later on the suspended spouse can start collecting his/her higher benefit (which will have increased by waiting), and the spouse taking the spousal benefit can file for their own benefit if higher.
Strategy: Allows both spouses to maximize the benefit from their earning record by delaying benefits past FRA, up to age 70. Also allows the couple to start getting 1 spousal benefit at FRA, but without jeopardizing the benefit they can get from their respective earning records.

These 3 strategies are fairly complex, and of course the rules could always change. We recommend consulting a professional before implementing to make sure our assumptions are correct. But if one of these fits your particular situation it could represent a very effective tool for you. Here is where Social Security’s Online Estimator (see Q & A’s below) might help you do some what-ifs to inform your decision. This page at the Social Security site, “Benefits for Your Spouse“, helps to explain spousal rights quite clearly.

Rights of Divorced Spouses
If you are divorced you are probably entitled to the spousal benefit from your former spouse (or your own benefit entitlement if you prefer). These conditions apply:
– You were married for at least 10 years to that person
– You are at least 62 and unmarried

You don’t have to wait for your former spouse to file – you can collect 50% of their current entitlement (or take your own). The fact that you are taking benefits based on your former spouse’s record has no impact on his/her benefit.

More frequent questions and misconceptions about Social Security
Q: Didn’t Social Security stop sending out those helpful benefit statements? Is there any way to get your statement?

A: Yes. They did this as a money saving idea. However, people over 60 years of age will start getting them again this year (2012). Furthermore, Social Security has 2 wonderful online tools to help:

Online Estimator:
Use this tool to estimate how much your benefit will be, based on your actual payments into the system and when you intend to start collecting. You will need to enter some personal information into the system to prove that it is you using the tool.

Online Statement
(Note: We have had trouble reaching this page using Firefox, so you might want to try it in another browser). If you create an account and provide the tool with your personal information, it will give you the same online statement you are used to getting in the mail.

Q: Will Social Security run out of money?

A: There are a lot of people asking this question. According to a 2012 report from the public trustees of the Social Security program, the system will not be able to pay 100% of promised retirement benefits beginning in 2033 (and the disability component will have that problem beginning in 2016) – unless Congress does something to fix the program.

However, this does not mean that Social Security is flat broke in 2033 if Congress fails to act. That’s because Social Security is a pay as you go program. FICA payments from people who are currently working will be coming into the system, and that will permit the Agency to pay at least 75% of promised benefits.

Q: Is the money that I paid into Social Security there in some specific account with my name on it?

A: No. As mentioned before, this is a pay as you go system. As designed, the taxes paid by current workers finance the payments to current retirees.

Q: What is behind the shortage looming in 2033?

A: There are 2 main factors:
1. Most importantly, it is demographic. There are so many baby boomers about to retire that they will outnumber the baby bust generation who are working to pay their retirement benefits.
2. Life expectancy keeps going up. When Social Security began most workers had physically demanding jobs, and the average life expectancy was much less than it is now. The result is that the program is paying benefits for many more years per worker than when it started.

The program clearly needs some minor adjustments to planned benefits and the ages at which people become eligible to overcome factors 1 and 2. Let us see if Congress will rise to the task!

More Questions
The Social Security website, ssa.gov, has a tremendous reservoir of Frequently Asked Questions. It is definitely worthwhile spending some time going through the various categories.

Note: Be sure to take our new “What is Your Social Security IQ Quiz“. It will give you a score and detailed explanations to make you a Social Security expert (our best advice, read this article first!).

About Czarnowski Consulting
Kurt Czarnowski is currently the principal in “Czarnowski Consulting,” a retirement planning company which provides “Expert Answers to Your Social Security Questions.” Czarnowski is the former Regional Communications Director for the Social Security Administration (SSA) in New England, a position he held from December 1991 until his retirement at the end of 2010.

About this conference
This conference was organized by the folks at the Oakley Wing Group at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney in Essex, CT, an asset management team who specializes in helping baby boomers coordinate and oversee their financial affairs leading up to and throughout retirement.  The team is available to help clients learn more about the preparations necessary to make a financially sound transition into retirement.  You can call or email 860-447-4847 or William.james.mills@mssb.com. The event sponsor was Transparent Value, an asset management company within Guggenheim Partners, a private global financial services firm.  in Essex, CT.

References:
Part 1: What You Think You Know About Social Security Might Hurt You
Part 3: How to “Buy” an Annuity from Social Security
AARP: 10 Things You Need to Know About Social Security
Fewer claiming Social Security Right at Age 62

Comments: Please let us know what you think about these strategies in the Comments section below. Do you plan to use one of them? What tactics are you using to maximize your legal benefits? Please also see the Comments made in Part 1 of this series.



Posted by John Brady on May 8th, 2012

28 Comments »

  1. […] and then dive into successful strategies for optimizing your return from this important safety net. Part 2 of this series will focus on issues related to claiming strategies for couples, the rights of divorced spouses, […]

    by » What You Think You Know about Social Security Could Hurt You – Part 1 Topretirements — May 8, 2012

  2. A spouse has the option of either collecting half of their spouses’s benefit or the amount that they are entitled to based on their own work history, whichever is greater. I started collecting my benefit at 62, and my wife will start collecting her benefits next year when she turns 62. She worked most of her life, before I met her. She would collect more based on her salary histoy.

    by Bill — May 9, 2012

  3. I’m 8 years younger than my spouse. His salary has been greatly reduced these past 5 years and he is not now working. He plans to take his social security in Feb 2013 at age 66. Since I’m still working how do we decide which is the best strategy since I might end up being elgibile for more soc security than he is?

    Editor’s note: My quick answer is that Option 2 might be a good one for you. Your husband starts collecting at FRA, and when you get to FRA in 9 years you file for spousal benefit. If you can, wait until you are 70 and then file for your own benefit, which is likely to be higher based on what said here. But check with your accountant before you do anything.

    by Connie — May 9, 2012

  4. this was a good article but doesn’t address what would be the best strategy for a 8-10 yr. age gap for theprimary earner and his spouse…any thoughts?

    by kh rosen — May 9, 2012

  5. Because of other pension and IRA income streams our need to start collecting our SSA benefits at 62 is somewhat reduced however we would like to defer tapping into our IRAs (both conventional and Roth) until later, to the degree that our cash flow is sufficient. My spouse and I will reach 62 within three months of each other.

    The question I have is this: Is there currently anything in this “spousal benefit” rule which would preclude each spouse from filing for and then suspending their own benefit at age 62 and then both spouses from claiming 50% of the other’s benefit? Our projections are similar but one is lower by about $200 per month. If we could each claim 50% of the other’s suspended benefits we would get an amount equal to the average of our two benefits at whichever age we would initiate this claiming process and then claim our respective full benefits at some later time such as either at FRA or even later (i.e., between the ages of 66 and 70).

    by Tom — May 9, 2012

  6. A question about Option 1 – can the high earner spouse apply and suspend before the FRA, so that a low earner spouse can collect the 50% early? Or is the FRA a requirement for this strategy?

    by Mark — May 9, 2012

  7. To whom it may concern,
    So what’s the deal with the disability component. You did not address that issue in full. How will my disability pay be impacted after 2016. With this year and 2016 being an election year, I would think I’d have heard more about this problem.
    R/S
    Carl E. Otey
    MGySgt USMC (Retired 74-04)

    Editor’s note: Assuming your disability pay is coming from Social Security (and not paid by the military), your payment will have to be reduced starting in 2016 – unless Congress does something to remedy the problem.

    by Carl E. Otey — May 9, 2012

  8. Tom, interesting question. I am assuming that you cannot do that or it would have been one of the suggested strategies, but I also would like an answer as that strategy would benefit me and my spouse. Right now we are not collecting but he reaches FRA next March so we need to start planning (both of us are retired).

    by MARY — May 9, 2012

  9. I am wondering if I did the right thing. I’m 63, my wife turns 62 in June. I’m not ready to retire for at least 2 years.
    So we made application to SS for my wife to draw her SS starting at 62, very low amount, and when I reach full retirement age we both will apply on my SS which will be substantially more than what she will be getting from her own.

    Anyone thinking I did right or did I blow it?

    by naperez — May 9, 2012

  10. Definitely consult a professional: There are many ramifications of taking SS benefits. Start with federal tax brackets. Then, your state: some tax/don’t tax SS benefits (ditto for government/rr/military pensions. Then, your medicare premiums, which can increase several hundreds dollars/month as your income (taxable and non-taxable) increases.

    by oldnassau'67 — May 9, 2012

  11. I guess I am wondering why those who have worked and paid into social security can’t be satisfied with their “earned benefit” instead of taking 50% of their spouse’s benefit. I am disappointed to learn there are so many loopholes to “get higher benefits” but not having “earned” that higher benefit. Is this why Social Security is in trouble?

    by nokatrail — May 9, 2012

  12. @Tom
    I think the catch to this strategy is in Option 1 where it states that when June starts to claim 50% of Ward’s benefit … “Her benefit will not increase from this point, other than from COLAs.” So in your strategy, if you both start to collect 50% of the other’s benefit, it sounds to me like both of your benefits will no longer increase, which I think negates the strategy.

    Editor’s note: Obviously this is an area where a consultant like Kurt could help. We are certainly not experts on the topic – we are just trying to point out the issues and let people make informed decisions on their own. However, our read on this point is that the reason “her benefit will not increase” is because she is taking the spousal benefit at less than her Full Retirement Age. The link to Social Security on “Benefits for Your Spouse” http://ssa.gov/retire2/yourspouse.htm seems to answer your question:

    “If your spouse has reached full retirement age and is eligible for a spouse’s benefit and his or her own retirement benefit, he or she has a choice. Your spouse can choose to receive only the spouse’s benefit now and delay receiving retirement benefits until a later date. If retirement benefits are delayed, a higher benefit may be received at a later date based on the effect of delayed retirement credits.”

    But if the spouse isnt at FRA he/she don’t seem to get this choice. The spouse who files but suspends does keep increasing their benefit until they start taking payments, or age 70.

    by scottp — May 9, 2012

  13. Re: divorced spouses
    My ex spouse is 8 years younger than I am and His earnings far exceeded my own. From what I understood from ss that I have to wait until he files – or is at the age to file before I can file for 50% of his ss. Your article states –
    ” You don’t have to wait for your former spouse to file – you can collect 50% of their current entitlement (or take your own). The fact that you are taking benefits based on your former
    spouse’s record has no impact on his/her benefit.”
    it would be better for me to take the 50% when I turn 62 and not file on my own until the full benefit age is reached…. Is this possible?

    by Iwashere — May 10, 2012

  14. I am also interested in hearing an answer to the question posed by “Iwashere”. Can anyone shed any additional light on her question, please?

    My specifics are: Was married for 12 years, spouse was 8 years younger than me. Both of us have worked our entire lives. I’m wondering if I can claim on his record when I turn 62, and then file on my work history when I reach FRA? Or is this just a “no, no”?

    by MeToo — May 10, 2012

  15. I was married for 22 years and a stay at home mom for a good many years. My understanding from the social security website is that as long as I am 60 I can remarry and still collect on the ex. Is this true? Does that fact that I am marrying a man who is not a US citizen have an impact?

    by Dorie Grimes — May 10, 2012

  16. Please note that you cannot take the “spousal” benefit, divorced or otherwise, until your minimum retirement age…65 or 66 depending. So this strategy will not work at age 62! If you are still married, at least one of you must be taking their full benefit for the other to be eligible for the spousal benefit. If you are divorced, it doesn’t apply. Consider this scenario….supose that one spouse was married twice for at least 10 years, then divorced. The two divorced spouses are each eligible to take the “1/2” spousal benefit! Somehow I don’t think that was ever in the minds of the designers in the first place!
    Shows how the whole thing needs to be re-thought out and modernized. Hope I didn’t overly confuse anyone.

    Editors Correction. Actually you CAN take the spousal benefit as early as 62, whether you are married or divorced. As pointed out in the article, there are many advantages to waiting until you and your spouse reach Full Retirement Age – you will get a larger benefit and also have the advantage of claiming on your own earnings history. See the link in the story above to “Spousal Benefits.

    by LuluM — May 18, 2012

  17. Thank you Lulu for your reply.

    by Dorie — May 20, 2012

  18. Here are a couple of very helpful links we’ve learned about since this article was written:
    http://money.msn.com/retirement/7-ignored-social-security-benefits-bankrate.aspx
    http://crr.bc.edu/briefs/should-you-buy-an-annuity-from-social-security/

    by topretirementseditor — May 25, 2012

  19. […] further reference: Social Security Part 1: What You Think You Know Might Hurt You Social Security Part 2: Claiming Strategies for Couples Should You Buy an Annuity from Social […]

    by » How to “Buy” an Annuity from Social Security Topretirements — May 29, 2012

  20. Isn’t there an option where both in the couple are within a year of birth, the husband’s income is far above the wifes but both have worked for many years. Now both retire at say 63, then husband does a file/suspend but then the wife does a file.. then.. wife now gets SS from HER job and husband gets spousal amount from HER job. Then at say 66 husband accepts his (whatever you call unsuspending) SS and wife now files for spousal amount on husband. I’ve heard that is a solid option, is it?

    Editor’s note: Yes, there are several spousal strategies that can dramatically increase a couple’s total benefit. See our Social Security Claiming Strategies article for more.

    by Gordon — July 12, 2012

  21. After doing some research about divorce spouses collecting on ex spouse SS (when ex is younger)…..I found the following information and thought I would share….

    If your ex-spouse is younger than you, you can collect your own benefit first (because they have not yet reached age 62 so you are not yet eligible to collect on theirs) and then switch to collecting on theirs once you become eligible for theirs (which would be when they reach age 62.) For example, suppose you are age 62 and your ex-spouse is 58. At 62 you could collect a benefit based on your record (but it would be reduced because you filed early) and then at age 66 (when your ex-spouse turns 62) switch to a benefit based on their record, although this would also be reduced because you filed early. This would only be to your benefit if your benefit based on 50% of theirs (and further reduced because you filed early) was going to be higher than your benefit based on your own record.

    by Iwashere — July 13, 2012

  22. […] 6. It doesn’t make any difference how my wife and I claim Social Security The spousal strategy is very important and somewhat complex. The decision is highly personal depending on your relative ages and life expectancies, who made the most money, and what your current financial needs are. Making a smart decision here could add thousands of dollars to your income vs. a poor decision. See our related article, “Claiming Strategies for Spouses“. […]

    by » 7 Social Security Myths That Can Cost You Serious Money Topretirements — January 23, 2013

  23. I feel it very disconcerting when the author states that SS will not have enough money by 2033 and that disabled persons need to worry about this in just a few short years and then in the next paragraph says “don’t worry, because no politician has the nerve to change this sacred cow that needs fixing”. Is anyone brave enough to stand up and fix this for all Americans, now, before the pain becomes much worse for everyone? 😕

    by Joyce — January 23, 2013

  24. I’m having a big problem figuring out what to do as my husband is 7 years younger than me, but he it the one with the much bigger potential SS income. I’m 65 next month, and only increase my SS by $16 if I wait to collect until I’m 66, as the amount I’m eligible for is very small. I would claim the 50% of my husband’s instead of mine, but he’s not old enough, so I don’t have that option. I’d really like to retire this year, but really don’t think I can afford it. ;-(

    by Chris — January 23, 2013

  25. My brother found this Q & A on the Social Security website. It is very helpful in explaining more about spousal strategy:

    Q: My wife just turned 66, her full retirement age, and I am already retired. Four years ago, she took early retirement at age 62 on her own work record. I’m wondering, can she now convert her benefit to a spousal benefit and get an amount equal to half of what I’m getting? Also I retired at 62 on disability. Should that make a difference in the amount she can collect?

    A. In answer to your first question, because your wife took her own Social Security benefit before her full retirement age, she will always get a reduced check based on her own record and as your spouse. Therefore, she cannot collect a spousal benefit rate that is half of yours upon reaching full retirement age.
    See also: What’s the best age to claim benefits?

    by Topretirements editor — January 26, 2013

  26. Editor: I will be 65 soon. Wife is 55. From readings, I thought that I could take mine at 70 to max it. She could take hers at 62. Most likely, I will die before her. Even though she took HERS early, I have always thought that she could take over my WHOLE (and much larger) benefit amount as survivor. Of course, she would only be able to take one benefit … whichever is larger. Are you saying that this is not true (if she took hers early)?

    by Mad Monk — January 29, 2013

  27. Widows and widowers also get a survivor’s benefit equal to 100 percent of their spouse’s benefits, if it’s higher than what they would get on their own. And the longer claiming is delayed up until age 70, the more money the surviving spouse will receive. Mad I posed you question to google and got good results.http://money.usnews.com/money/retirement/articles/2008/01/09/marriage-and-social-security-benefits

    by rpger — January 30, 2013

  28. http://newsok.com/a-womans-guide-to-social-security/article/3519063
    This is a way you can get a fact sheet for yous self. This guy worked at SS for 40 years.

    by roger — January 30, 2013

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