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New Social Security Rules for Married Couples

Deciding when to begin receiving Social Security benefits is a major financial issue for anyone approaching retirement because the age at which you apply for benefits will affect the amount you'll receive. If you're married, deciding when to retire can be especially complicated because you and your spouse will need to plan together. Recently, there were new rules introduced in the Social Security Act that prevents married couples from using past methods of boosting retirement income.

File and suspend

As of 4/30/16, this method will mean that someone who suspends his Social Security benefits is treated as suspending all associated Social Security benefits, including his spouse. This eliminates the file and suspend strategy as a means of maximizing benefits for married couples. 

Before this new section was introduced, a husband or wife was entitled to receive the higher of his or her own Social Security retirement benefit (a worker's benefit) or as much as 50% of what his or her spouse is entitled to receive at full retirement age (a spousal benefit). 

The file-and-suspend strategy was most commonly used when one spouse had much lower lifetime earnings, and thus received a higher retirement benefit based on his or her spouse's earnings record than on his or her own earnings record. Using this strategy would potentially boost retirement income in three ways: 1) the spouse with higher earnings who has suspended his or her benefits can accrue delayed retirement credits at a rate of 8% per year (the rate for anyone born in 1943 or later) up until age 70, thereby increasing his or her retirement benefit by as much as 32%; 2) the spouse with lower earnings can immediately claim a higher (spousal) benefit; and 3) any survivor's benefit available to the lower-earning spouse will also increase because a surviving spouse generally receives a benefit equal to 100% of the monthly retirement benefit the other spouse was receiving (or was entitled to receive) at the time of his or her death. In November 2015, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) released an interactive, online tool designed to help consumers decide when to claim their Social Security retirement benefits called Planning for Retirement.   

Claim now, claim more later

Section 831(a) says that an individual who applies for a spousal benefit is automatically deemed to have also applied for his own retirement benefit. A restricted application to only one person's benefit is no longer allowed, which prevents married couples from taking advantage of the "claim now, claim more later" method. 

Here is what this method used to allow:

Once a spouse reached full retirement age and was eligible for a spousal benefit based on his or her spouse's earnings record and a retirement benefit based on his or her own earnings record, he or she could choose to file a restricted application for spousal benefits, then delay applying for retirement benefits on his or her own earnings record (up until age 70) in order to earn delayed retirement credits. This would potentially help to maximize survivor's income as well as retirement income, because the surviving spouse will be eligible for the greater of his or her own benefit or 100% of the spouse's benefit.

Every situation is unique, and these strategies may not be appropriate for all couples. When deciding when to apply for Social Security benefits, make sure to consider a number of scenarios that take into account factors such as both spouses' ages, estimated benefit entitlements and life expectancies.

For more information about your options and the benefit application process, contact the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213 or visit