When most people reach their 60s, they start thinking about their retirement benefits from Social Security. For married couples, there are advantages to making decisions about retirement as a couple, rather than as individuals. Taking into consideration joint life expectancy, future plans, and your household budget, you can make some decisions about retirement together.

Are you eligible to receive benefits as a spouse?

It is likely that both you and your spouse have earned enough Social Security credits to be eligible for your own benefits after retirement. Anyone who is married can apply for Social Security benefits on their own, or they can take the option to get up to 50 percent of their spouse’s benefit amount at full retirement age.

If you decide to opt for the spousal benefit but have not yet reached full retirement age yourself, that benefit will be less than 50 percent. This may still be a good option if you have not been working much through the years. You should look into how much your estimated benefits would be at full retirement age so you can make a comparison.

Do you qualify for your own Social Security benefits as well as spousal benefits?

Social Security pays your benefits first, but if the benefits you would receive through your spouse are higher than yours, you can receive a combination of these benefits to reach the amount you would receive as a spouse.

For married couples who have both had full lifetime careers, there may still be an advantage to opting for spousal benefits to increase lifetime payments. This can be done by following different timing strategies.

If both spouses are eligible for Social Security retirement benefits, both are also eligible to receive the spouse benefit based on the other’s work record. In cases like this, if one spouse claims his or her benefit at full retirement age, the other spouse may claim the spousal retirement benefit instead of his or her own benefit.

The Social Security Administration refers to this as filing a restricted application, and it can only be done by the beneficiary who has reached full retirement age.

If you are the higher earning spouse, you may claim the spousal benefit based on your spouse’s work record when you reach full retirement age. This leaves that benefit which is based on your work record to accumulate delayed retirement credits. Then, when you turn 70, you can switch over from the spousal benefit to your actual benefit. This strategy also means that the higher benefit is there for the spouse who eventually lives the longest.

You are eligible to file a restricted application if you were born before January 2, 1954, you have reached your full retirement age, and your spouse is collecting his or her own Social Security benefit.

How much is a spouse’s benefit?

If your spouse qualifies for Social Security benefits based on his or her own work record, he or she receives that amount first. If the spousal benefit is higher, he or she receives an additional amount to equal the spouse benefit amount.

If your spouse does not qualify for an individual benefit, he or she may receive the spouse benefit amount of 50 percent of your benefits, if they are at full retirement age. If they are between the age of 62 and full retirement age, the amount they receive as a spouse benefit is permanently reduced.

If your spouse is caring for your child who is younger than 16, your spouse may receive the full amount of spousal benefit at any age, and until the child turns 16.

If your spouse receives a spouse’s benefit based on your work record, your retirement benefits are not reduced, you receive the full amount of your benefit.

A widow or widower who has reached full retirement age, and whose spouse did not receive Social Security benefits until 70 years old, receives the full benefit amount of the deceased spouse.

Talk to a financial planner to help you determine the bets course of action for you and your spouse as you consider your retirement options.

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