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Senior Living Q&A;: Reaping Social Security

Q. Can you give me some insight into ways my wife and I can maximize our Social Security payments?Can you give me some insight into ways my wife and I can maximize our Social Security payments?

— Mike, La Cañada ?

A lot depends on whether your wife worked, and if she worked, for how long. If she didn’t work the 40 quarters required to collect on her own, then she will be eligible for spousal payments.

Spouses are entitled to a Social Security payout of up to 50% of the higher earner’s check if that amount is higher than benefits based on his or her own working record.


Retired couples in which one spouse did not work or had low earnings have the most to gain from this provision. However, low-earning spouses must wait until what the Social Security Administration calls the “full retirement age” to collect the full 50%. (For baby boomers born between 1943 and 1954, the full retirement age is 66.)

Benefits are reduced for spouses who collect before their full retirement age. For example, a low-earning spouse whose full retirement age is 66 would only be eligible for 35% of the higher earner’s benefit at age 62. The spousal benefit does not increase above 50% of the higher earner’s benefit if claiming is delayed beyond the full retirement age.

The lower earner cannot receive spouse’s benefits until the higher earner files for retirement benefits. Workers who have reached their full retirement age may apply for retirement benefits and then request to have the payment suspended.

Claiming and suspending payments allows the lower earner to claim a spousal benefit and the higher earner to continue working and earn delayed retirement credits until age 70.


“This would tend to maximize their lifetime benefits and more importantly maximizes the survivor’s benefit,” says Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration. “You will ensure you will have a higher benefit when you need one, which is when you are a widow later in life.”

Social Security checks increase 7-8% for each year of delayed claiming between your full retirement age and age 70. After age 70 there is no additional benefit for waiting to collect your due.

The situation is different for couples who both worked. Dual-earner couples who have reached their full retirement age can claim Social Security twice: first as a spouse and later using their own work record. A person may choose to sign up for only a spouse’s benefits at their full retirement age and continue accruing delayed retirement credits on their own Social Security record. The worker may then file for benefits based on their own work at a later date and receive a higher monthly benefit due to delayed retirement credits.

For example, a man planning to retire at age 70 could claim a spouse’s benefit based on his wife’s earnings at age 66 and then claim again based on his own working record when he exits the workforce at age 70. High-income couples with relatively equal earnings gain the most using this strategy, according to calculations by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

When considering waiting until 66 or 70 to begin collecting benefits, you must factor in your current health status. If health is poor, then benefits will be maximized by collecting sooner rather than later.

Get in touch ? NANCY TURNEY received a bachelor’s degree in social work and a certificate in gerontology. If you have a specific question you would like answered in this column, e-mail it to or call Turney at the Crescenta-Cañada YMCA, (818) 790-0123, ext. 225.