When Should a Married Couple Avoid Delaying Social Security?

As the author illustrates, when each spouse begins drawing Social Security can have a significant impact on the other’s benefits.

Social Security is one of those topics that have extreme opinions on the opposite sides of the spectrum.

One camp says to delay benefits as long as possible while the other camp says to get benefits while you can by filing at 62. Both arguments have some merit but neither apply perfectly for everyone, especially couples. 

As a single person, deciding when to draw Social Security benefits is relatively simple. You just need to base your decision on your needs and life expectancy.

For couples, however, the decision is much more complicated and often, a mixed approach is best. Let’s dig into the details.

Survivor Benefits

One of the big reasons that couples should take the Social Security question seriously is because when each couple starts their own benefits can directly affect their spouse’s benefit while both are alive and especially once one spouse has passed away. 

Let’s do an example to see how this would work. 

Here are the FRA (full retirement age) monthly benefits for our example couple:

Spouse 1: $2,000

Spouse 2: $1,000

When they are both alive, they both receive their individual benefits for a total of $3,000/month. 

However, once one spouse passes away the survivor starts receiving their own benefit or their spouse’s benefit (whichever is higher). In this example, the surviving spouse (regardless if it was spouse 1 or spouse 2) would receive $2,000 because that is the higher of the two benefits. 

But now let’s say that spouse 1 (the higher earner) decided to delay his benefits 3 years past his full retirement age until age 70. This would increase his benefit to $2,480 which would mean that the surviving spouse would be left with more as well. 

If spouse 2 decided to delay benefits until age 70 it would increase the total benefits they had while both alive but because it is the lower benefit, it would go away when one of the spouses dies. 

This means that when the higher earning spouse decides to take benefits can more significantly affect the couple while they are both alive and after one has passed away.

When to File

So we come back to the question of when should each spouse file for benefits? 

For all of us, Social Security is a trade-off. Should we give up benefits now for more benefits in the future? And if we live past the “break even” age, we’d more than make up for the initially missed benefits. 

But because the higher earning spouse’s benefits last for both spouse’s lifetimes, the odds of at least one of them passing the break even point is higher than just one life expectancy. 

This often makes it more appealing for the higher earner to delay benefits as long as possible and the lower-earning spouse to take benefits as early as possible, because from a break-even perspective, it would only make sense for both spouses to delay benefits if both spouses lived well into their 80’s and beyond. 

Other Thoughts

As you can imagine, this strategy may not make sense for everyone. Everyone’s situation is different and deserves plenty of research to come to the optimal solution for you. 

Social Security is often a large percentage of many people’s retirement picture and deciding when to file will have lasting effects for decades to come. 

About the Author

Dallen Haws is a Financial Advisor who is dedicated to helping federal employees live their best life and plan an incredible retirement. He hosts a podcast and YouTube channel all about federal benefits and retirement. You can learn more about him at Haws Federal Advisors.