If you don’t understand these two simple rules, you could be setting your spouse up for hard times.
It might surprise you, but entire armies of Social Security nerds argue about when is best to claim Social Security. Officially, full retirement age lands between 66 and 67, depending on when you were born. But you can claim as early as age 62, and as late as age 70 — with benefits increasing the longer you wait.
I am solidly in the “claim as early as possible” camp. But that’s a broad dictum, and there are a million personal variables at play. For instance, if you have a spouse who — for whatever reason — is going to need the largest benefit possible, then it would actually be dumb to claim before full retirement age.
The rules guiding Social Security spousal benefits
Although there are plenty of two-earner families with roughly equal pay, there are still many other families in which one spouse earns the lion’s share of take-home pay while the other doesn’t. In these circumstances, one person establishes a long earnings history (let’s call this person the earner), securing substantial Social Security benefits. But the other (we’ll call this one the spouse) has more meager Social Security checks coming their way.
That’s where Social Security spousal benefits come in. If the spouse wants the highest possible benefit, they must wait until they hit full retirement age to file for Social Security benefits. If the earner has yet to file, the spouse will receive whatever benefit they are due from their own work record. When the earner files, the spouse will get 50% of whatever the earner’s full retirement benefit is.