Planning for Social Security benefits for a couple can be complicated. There are many factors to consider, including the amount of benefits each member of the couple is entitled to at various ages, as well as the relative ages of the spouses to one another. Other factors include whether or not one member of the couple (or both) will earn wages past age 62, as well as longevity: the potential of the couple (at least one member) living past normal life expectancy.
Longevity is one of the most important factors to consider – and for a couple this isn’t as straightforward as it is for one person. According to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ Annuity 2000 table, a couple who are both age 50 stand a 50% chance of one member living to at least 91 years of age. For another example, if the husband is 62 and the wife is 59, again there’s a 50% chance that one will live another 31.7 years, where either she reaches 90.7 or he lives to 93.7.
This is because the possibility of both members of a couple dying at or about the usual life expectancy is lessened when both lives are considered. Therefore, planning for Social Security benefits for a couple is not simply a duplication of the effort involved with planning for one person – given that the benefits of the member of the couple with the higher lifetime benefit amount has a half chance of continuing on beyond the life of one member.
If the lifetime over which the benefit is being paid out is less than or equal to the normal life expectancy (roughly 78 to 80 years of age), the way to maximize benefits is to increase the number of years that the benefit is paid out. This is done by starting this benefit as early as possible, or age 62.
However, if the lifetime over which the benefit is being paid out is more (by more than a year or two) than normal life expectancy, maximizing benefits is accomplished by increasing the relative size of the benefits being paid. You do this by delaying the start of benefits to age 70, the age when your benefit amount is at its peak.
Armed with the knowledge we have from above, we can make a few generalizations about choices of when each member of the couple should file. The assumption in these scenarios is that one spouse lives to an age less than or equal to the average life expectancy, and the other lives for at least a few years beyond that point in his or her own life. Later we’ll discuss the implications where both spouses have a diminished expectation of lifespan.
For many (but not all) couples, it is a relatively simple choice to maximize each person’s benefit over the period of time that it is expected to be paid out. Since the Survivor Benefit rules allow the spouse with the lower lifetime benefit credit to switch over to the benefit of the higher-earning spouse at the death of the higher-earning spouse, it is expected that the higher benefit of the couple will be paid out over the longest period of time. And with that in mind, since we are assuming that one or the other in the couple will live for some time after normal life expectancy, the higher benefit should be maximized by taking it at age 70.
Additionally, since we’re assuming that one member of the couple is going to live only to normal life expectancy, maximizing the lower-wage-earning spouse’s benefit is accomplished by starting as early as possible, at age 62.
Also, depending upon the relative ages of the couple, as well as the relative size of the benefits, using the above strategy will open up possibilities for using Spousal Benefits (we won’t go into this right now though).
In many cases however, the above strategy is not the optimum way for planning benefits. Many times the relative ages of the couple prompt for a different strategy, or the life expectancy of one or the other is diminished. Below are a couple of examples where a different tack is warranted.
Couple is more than four years apart in age and HWES is younger If the expectation is that the HWES (Higher-Wage-Earning Spouse) will outlive the LWES (Lower-Wage-Earning Spouse), and further that the LWES will possibly live beyond the normal life expectancy (for example, since many times the LWES is a woman and women have longer life expectancies), it might make more sense for the LWES to delay filing for benefits to Full Retirement Age (FRA) or later.
When the HWES reaches FRA, since the LWES has already filed for benefits, the HWES can file a restricted application for Spousal Benefits only. This will provide the couple with additional benefits while allowing HWES to continue delaying filing for benefits to age 70.
This strategy maximizes both the LWES benefit and the HWES benefit, providing for each benefit to be received for the longest possible time. In addition, we are maximizing the time that the allowable Spousal Benefit is received.
For example, if a couple is 62 (LWES) and 52 (HWES), when the LWES reaches normal life expectancy (around age 80), then HWES will be 70. If LWES lives even a couple of years beyond that age, LWES benefits would have been maximized over the couple’s lifetime if LWES starts benefits later, and the later the better. Working with the averages, having the LWES start benefits at FRA may be the best way to attempt maximizing. Either way, when the HWES reaches FRA, since the LWES has already filed for benefits, the HWES can file a restricted application for Spousal Benefit while continuing to accrue delay credits.
Couple both have a diminished expectation of life span In a case like this, both members of the couple have a health issue or family history that leads them to reasonably believe that they each will live to an age less than approximately 80.
With a shortened life span for both, each should begin receiving benefits as early as possible, at age 62. When eligible, the LWES should also begin Spousal Benefits as early as possible, in order to maximize this benefit for the few years it will be available.
However, if the relative ages of the two is significantly different, it could be beneficial for the HWES to delay benefits, if HWES is older. For example, if the couple is age 52 (LWES) and 62 (HWES), when HWES reaches age 70, the LWES will be 60. Given our assumption that each member of the couple will die by approximately age 80, the HWES’s benefit will be received for as much as 20 years (16 to 18 years is the break-even point).