Getting the most from Social Security when you’re married

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 Q. I’m 61, retired, not working and I’m the lower wage earner. My plan was to claim a spousal benefit ($900) for my husband at my FRA (66 years old). Can I collect my own Social Security check ($1,850) at the same time, or must I suspend my own benefits while he collects 50 percent of mine? My husband plans to retire next year from his stressful job and continue working at a different company, which will mean a reduction in pay. However, he will begin collecting a small company pension ($1,450). I am currently collecting my own company pension ($1,450). We did not want to work ourselves to death until we collect our full Social Security checks but we didn’t want to be foolish either.

A. Let’s assume for this example that you and your husband are the same age, and that 66 is the full retirement age for you both.

Generally, a husband or wife is entitled to receive the higher of his or her own Social Security retirement benefit or as much as 50 percent of what his or her spouse is entitled to receive at full retirement age, which is called a spousal benefit, said Michael Pirrello, a certified financial planner with Mill Ridge Wealth Management in Chester.

“Under Social Security rules, a husband or wife who is eligible to file for spousal benefits based on his or her spouse’s record cannot do so until his or her spouse begins collecting retirement benefits,” Pirrello said. “So in your case, yes, you can collect your own Social Security benefit of $1,850 at the same time that your husband collects a spousal benefit based on your record.”

Where you may be getting confused is with the option to “file and suspend” your benefit. The file and suspend strategy is most commonly used when one spouse has much lower lifetime earnings and thus will receive a higher retirement benefit based on his or her spouse’s earnings record than on his or her own earnings record, Pirrello said.

“Again, per your first question, yes, you can both collect your benefit and a spousal benefit for your husband at the same time,” he said. “However, you also have the option to have your husband collect a spousal benefit and you can suspend your benefit so that your ultimate benefit will accrue an additional 8 percent per year until you begin collecting it, resulting in a higher benefit paid to you later.”

The “file and suspend” option is certainly a popular one.

Douglas Buchan, a certified financial planner with Main Street Financial in Pennington, says you should consider the strategy.

He said when the higher wage earner hits full retirement age, that spouse could start taking benefits, but almost immediately suspend taking the payments. This would allow that spouse’s benefit to continue to grow at about 8 percent a year.

But given that one spouse has filed, the second spouse can begin to collect half of that benefit, Buchan said.

“Most importantly in all of this: make sure you have a good financial plan in place that gives you confidence that you will always have enough `income’ to live the lifestyle you want of the rest of your life,” Buchan said. “If you’re not sure about it, find someone you like and trust to sit down with you to give you the financial peace of mind you deserve.”

To learn more about the specifics for your situation, check out your account with Social Security, or set up an appointment to meet a local rep.

Email your questions to moc.p1596926000leHye1596926000noMJN1596926000@ksA1596926000.

This story was first posted in November 2014.

NJMoneyHelp.com presents certain general financial planning principles and advice, but should never be viewed as a substitute for obtaining advice from a personal professional advisor who understands your unique individual circumstances.