How Spouses Can Maximize Their Social Security Retirement Benefits

Married couples can sometimes strategize the timing of their Social Security retirement benefits to get higher lifetime benefits for one or both spouses.

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For a number of years, married couples nearing retirement were able to cleverly strategize the timing of their Social Security retirement benefits to get higher lifetime benefits for one or both spouses. The Social Security Administration (SSA) has put an end to some of the strategies that married couples had used in the past, but spouses nearing retirement age still have many questions about how to get the highest possible joint Social Security benefits. Here are some answers to your questions and a few tips on how to avoid mistakes that could reduce your benefits.

Can Both Spouses Collect Social Security at the Same Time?

Both spouses in a married couple can get full Social Security benefits, at the same time. Married couples get two separate Social Security checks, and there is no "marriage penalty" for Social Security benefits. The maximum Social Security benefit for an individual is $3,345, so the maximum Social Security benefits for a married couple is $6,690, but very few people get benefits anywhere close to the maximum.

Can One Spouse Delay Retirement Benefits While the Other Spouse Collects Benefits?

For most couples now reaching retirement age, both husband and wife, or both spouses, have earned some Social Security retirement benefits on their own earnings records. That means that each spouse can claim dependents benefits based on the other spouse's work record, as well as survivors benefits based on the work record of the spouse who dies first.

Any time after each spouse reaches age 62, that spouse can claim retirement benefits. If one spouse claims retirement benefits, the other spouse may want to delay claiming their own retirement benefit, to let it grow. (Social Security penalizes people for collecting their retirement benefits early.) Sometimes couples can withdraw money from other retirement accounts, like IRAs and 401(k)s, to be able to delay collecting their Social Security benefit until age 70.

In the past, once reaching full retirement age, a spouse could claim their spousal retirement (dependents) benefits without claiming their own retirement benefit. This was called "filing a restricted application." But now that option is only available to people who were at least 68 at the end of 2021. Anyone younger doesn't have to opportunity to file a restricted application.

Today, when someone files an application for any type of retirement, spousal benefit, or dependent benefit, Social Security considers it to be an application for the highest benefit available. Often, the highest benefit is their own retirement benefit, but in some cases, the highest benefit might be their spousal retirement benefit. Social Security will always pay you the highest benefit available when you file.

If I Claim Early Retirement Benefits, Do My Spouse's Benefits Get Penalized (Lowered)?

No, your claiming early retirement benefits does not reduce the amount of your spouse's spousal benefits or your child's dependents benefit amount that they can collect on your work record. Your claiming early retirement benefits will reduce your retirement benefits or your spousal retirement benefits based on your spouse's work record. (As we mentioned above, if you file an early claim for retirement benefits—or spousal retirement benefits—Social Security will permanently reduce your benefits.)

But, your collecting early retirement benefits does reduce the eventual survivors benefit that your spouse could collect based on your work record, if you die before your spouse.

Note well, though: your claiming early retirement benefits doesn't affect the amount of the survivors benefits you can collect based on your spouse's work record, if your spouse dies before you.

Can I Collect Survivors Benefits After Claiming Early Retirement or Dependents Benefits?

Some spouses claim early retirement or early spousal retirement benefits but can then switch to higher survivors benefits when their spouse dies.

Claiming your early retirement or spousal retirement benefits doesn't affect the amount of your survivors benefits (which are based on your spouse's record). If you have a considerably older spouse who has a higher earnings record, or your higher-earning spouse is in poor health, you could claim your early retirement or spousal retirement benefit, relying on the fact that you will be able to switch to full survivors benefits in the not-too-distant future.

Note that if your spouse claims early retirement benefits, however, your eventual survivors benefit will be reduced. The amount of the reduction depends on how early your spouse claims their retirement benefits. (And similarly, your claiming early retirement benefits will reduce your spouse's or child's eventual survivors benefit based on your work record.)

This article was excerpted from Social Security, Medicare & Government Pensions, by Joseph Matthews (Nolo).

Updated July 13, 2022

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