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Married couples have Social Security options

With just a little planning, you and your spouse can make the most of your Social Security benefits.


  • Coordinating your benefits with your spouse's benefits can help you both get the most out of your Social Security payments.
  • In some cases, it makes sense for both spouses to claim on the same spouse's earnings record.
  • Many couples use a "split strategy," which means they begin claiming at different ages. It might be worthwhile for the higher earner to wait longer to collect.

Start with benefits estimates for you & your spouse

Your first step in maximizing your Social Security benefits should be to visit the Social Security Administration (SSA) website.

Who's the higher earner?

Compare the estimates for you and your spouse, and pay special attention to the difference between your estimates. The higher earner is the spouse with the larger primary insurance amounts (PIA).

When you're deciding who will collect first and who should wait, consider having the lower earner collect first and having the higher earner wait. Over time, the higher earner's increases will be worth more than the lower earner's increases.

And if one spouse's estimates are more than twice as high as the other's, it might make sense for both of you eventually to collect on the same spouse's earnings record.

In that situation, the spouse with the lower benefits can claim first based on his or her own earnings record and apply for spousal benefits later when the spouse with the higher benefits starts to collect.

The longer the spouse with the higher benefit waits to start collecting, the higher benefits will be for both spouses. Delaying the higher earning spouse's benefits could also eventually increase the other spouse's survivors benefits.

Factors that could reduce your payments

Before you plug your Social Security estimates into your retirement plan, be sure to adjust those estimates if any of these factors apply to see how much you might actually end up with.

Figure out the best time for you and your spouse to claim Social Security

As you consider the right time to start collecting Social Security, remember that if you decide to delay, you can revisit that decision as often as you'd like.

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Both claim early at age 62

Anyone who's paid Social Security taxes for at least 10 years can start to receive retirement benefits as early as age 62 based on his or her own earnings record. A married spouse without an earnings record (or whose record would result in a lower Social Security payment) can collect on his or her spouse's earnings record when his or her spouse turns 62.

Collecting Social Security at 62 has some advantages. For example, you may be ready to retire and counting on Social Security as the cornerstone of your retirement plan. After all, if you've paid Social Security taxes for 10 years, then you're entitled to Social Security benefits.

If you or your spouse has serious health problems or a family history that suggests you may not live long enough to profit from waiting, collecting early might make the most sense for you. Just remember that if the higher earner delays, the surviving spouse's survivors benefits could also increase.

On the other hand, the earlier you start to collect, the less you'll receive each month. But if you start to collect and then change your mind, you have 2 options.

The "reset" rule

Within 12 months of starting to collect, you can "reset" your benefits to erase the reduction, but you must repay all of the benefits you and your family earned.

See how it works: The "reset" rule

The voluntary suspension rule

If you started collecting before your full retirement age (FRA), you can suspend your benefits at FRA and restart them later.

See how it works: Voluntary suspension

Both claim at full retirement age

If you start collecting Social Security retirement benefits at your full retirement age (FRA), you'll receive 100% of your primary insurance amount (PIA). But remember that you can collect more than 100% of your PIA by waiting beyond your FRA.

You'll earn an extra 0.67% each month that you delay your Social Security benefits past your FRA. That's an extra 8% for each year that you wait past FRA … and what other investment can guarantee an 8% annual increase?*

Since it's unlikely that you and your spouse were born on the same day, the two of you will stagger your start dates if you both collect at your respective FRAs.

If you're planning on staggering your start dates anyway, consider delaying the higher earner's start date beyond his or her FRA, since the higher earner's payments will increase by a higher percentage as a result of waiting.

Both wait until age 70 to claim benefits

If you or your spouse (or even both of you!) can wait until you're 70, you'll receive your highest Social Security payments—up to 132% of your primary insurance amount (PIA) if your full retirement age (FRA) is 66, and 124% of your PIA if your FRA is 67.

You & your spouse claim using a split strategy

Even if married couples start collecting on the same date, they're almost always different ages. Claiming at different ages is called a "split strategy."

Remember that the longer you wait, the more you'll receive—that's true for everyone. And if you decide that one of you will wait longer than the other to start collecting, it makes more sense for the higher earner to wait.

In other words, the split strategy that many couples use is to have the lower earner collect first for as long as the couple can manage their finances on one Social Security payment. Then, when the higher earner begins to collect, his or her payments will have increased more than the lower earner's would have, and the surviving spouse's survivors benefits would also increase.

See how it works: Split strategy

An advanced claiming strategy (if one spouse reached 62 by 2015)

If you or your spouse reached age 62 by the end of 2015, you qualify for a Social Security claiming strategy called restricted application.

Here's how it works: The younger spouse (who doesn't need to have turned 62 at the end of 2015) claims Social Security benefits based on his or her own earnings record.

When the older spouse (who must have been 62 at the end of 2015) reaches full retirement age (FRA), he or she files a restricted application for spousal benefits only. At that point, both spouses are claiming benefits based on the younger spouse's earnings record.

Then, at age 70, the older spouse claims benefits based on his or her own earnings record, which have increased to 132% of what that spouse would've been eligible for at FRA.

See how it works: Restricted application

What's next?

Social Security provides more than just retirement benefits. And the federal government offers more than just Social Security benefits. As you put your retirement plan together, check to see whether you qualify for other government benefits, such as family and children services, tax assistance, and active military or veterans benefits.

Apply for Social Security

You can file for Social Security benefits online, over the phone, or in person at a local Social Security Administration office.

You may need to produce these documents when you apply

  • Your Social Security card.
  • An original birth certificate or other proof of your birth.
  • A copy of your W-2 form or self-employment tax return for the previous year.
  • Your marriage certificate.
  • If you weren't born in the United States, proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status.

A Vanguard advisor can help

If you're struggling with making your best Social Security decision, we can help. You'll also get a custom financial plan, ongoing portfolio management, investment coaching, and real-time goal tracking—all at a low cost.

Your Social Security guide

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Full retirement age (FRA)

The age at which you're eligible for your full monthly benefits, also known as the primary insurance amount (PIA). The Social Security Administration sometimes refers to full retirement age as "normal retirement age" (NRA).

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Primary insurance amounts (PIA)

Also known as the full monthly benefit amount, the Social Security benefits you'll receive if you start collecting at your full retirement age (FRA). The benefits are based on your historical earnings.

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Why it makes sense for the higher earner to wait longer to collect

David and Linda are married. David's primary insurance amount (PIA) at full retirement age (FRA) is $1,600; Linda's is $1,450. They both have an FRA of 67.

If they both wait until 68 to collect, which means their benefits will increase by 8%, David's benefits will be $1,728 (an increase of $128 per month), and Linda's will be $1,566 (an increase of $116 per month).

That extra $12 per month (the difference between David's increase and Linda's increase) means an extra $144 per year, or $2,880 over 20 years.

In addition, the spouse who lives longer will continue to collect the higher payments.

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Earnings record

The history of your earnings for the years you worked.

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Spousal benefits

Benefits paid to the spouse of an eligible worker. You generally must be at least age 62 to claim spousal benefits.

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Survivors benefits

Benefits paid to the surviving spouse or potentially other family members of a deceased eligible worker.

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The "reset" rule

Deborah started to receive Social Security benefits at age 64. Nearly a year later, she's working again and she wishes she'd waited until her full retirement age (FRA) so that she could have received higher benefits. Deborah can pay back all the payments she received, without interest, and file paperwork with the Social Security Administration to stop her benefits and withdraw her application.

By doing that, she "resets" her Social Security benefits so that when she starts to collect again, she'll receive a higher benefit amount based on her age. Deborah needs to consider the source of the funds she's required to return to Social Security. Using taxable assets or taking a distribution from a retirement account may be the most tax-efficient means of raising funds for the payback.

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Voluntary suspension

Cheryl, age 61, is starting to look at her Social Security options.

  • If she claims early, at age 62, her benefits would be reduced by 25% to $750 a month.
  • If she claims her benefits at her full retirement age (FRA) of 66, she'll be due $1,000 a month.
  • If she waits until age 70 to claim, that number would rise 32% to $1,320 a month (in real, inflation-adjusted terms).

Now, if Cheryl claims early (the "start"), she can voluntarily suspend her benefits at age 66 (the "stop").

Then when she resumes her benefits at age 70 (the second "start"), that $750 she had been receiving before she suspended her benefits would rise by 32% to $990 a month. That payment is significantly higher than $750, but is far lower than the $1,320 she'd receive if she waited until age 70 to claim benefits initially.*

footnote*Sources: Vanguard calculations, based on data from Society of Actuaries, 2014, RP-2014 Mortality Tables Report (Schaumberg, Ill.: Society of Actuaries), and Society of Actuaries, 2014, Mortality Improvement Scale MP-2014 Report (Schaumberg, Ill.: Society of Actuaries).

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Split strategy

Sharon and Ken are deciding when to start collecting their Social Security retirement benefits. Sharon was born in 1960 and Ken was born in 1962, so their full retirement age (FRA) is 67. At FRA, Ken's primary insurance amount (PIA) is $2,100 per month, and Sharon's is $975.

Because they've saved for retirement in 401(k)s and IRAs, they decide that only one of them needs to apply for Social Security at FRA. Over the long run, they'd earn more by delaying Ken's benefits, since he's the higher earner. So Sharon applies at 67 and receives $975 per month.

Ken waits until age 70 to apply, and his benefits have grown to $2,715 per month. When Ken applies, Sharon switches to spousal benefits. She's entitled to half of Ken's PIA ($2,100), $1,050. And because they delayed Ken's benefits, the surviving spouse is also in line to collect more.

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Restricted application

Charles is age 62, and his primary insurance amount (PIA) is $1,000. His wife Phyllis is age 66, and her PIA is $2,496. If Charles and Phyllis need Social Security income early, Charles can file and receive his reduced PIA of $750 at age 62. Because Phyllis has reached her full retirement age (FRA), she's eligible to file a restricted application for her spousal benefits of $500. This will allow her benefits on her earnings record to grow to $3,295 at age 70. The benefits to the surviving spouse will be the full $3,295.

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makes more sense for the higher earner to wait

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Full retirement age (FRA)

The age at which you're eligible for your full monthly benefits, also known as the primary insurance amount (PIA). The Social Security Administration sometimes refers to full retirement age as "normal retirement age" (NRA).

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Restricted application

When a worker is eligible for both his or her own benefits and spousal benefits at full retirement age (FRA), the worker can file a restricted application for spousal benefits only, meaning the worker's own benefits will accrue delayed retirement credits. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 limits use of restricted application to claimants who turned 62 by the end of 2015.