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Social Security provides a financial safety net for retirees, people with disabilities, and their dependents. However, navigating the program’s rules, particularly for couples and families, can be complex. This article clarifies some key points to consider regarding Social Security benefits and your loved ones.

Social Security Relies on Your Reporting

Unlike private pensions, Social Security doesn’t automatically track your family life events. They won’t know if you’re married, divorced, widowed, or have dependents unless you inform them. This is crucial because these factors significantly impact the benefits you and your family may receive.

Spousal and Survivor Benefits

Spousal Benefits: If you’re married and your spouse has a higher work history, you might be eligible for a benefit based on their earnings. This benefit can be substantial, but it’s important to understand how your decisions affect each other’s benefits.

Survivor Benefits: If you’re widowed, you may be eligible for benefits based on your deceased spouse’s work record. The benefit amount and when you claim it can impact the total payout.

Important Considerations

Full Retirement Age (FRA): Many benefits are maximized at your FRA, which varies depending on your birth year. Taking benefits earlier generally reduces the monthly amount, while delaying them past FRA increases it.

Excess Benefits: Some benefits, like spousal or survivor benefits, might decrease when your retirement benefit increases due to delayed retirement credits.

Filing and Suspending: If you’re already receiving retirement benefits, you can suspend them and restart later to receive a higher monthly amount. However, this strategy doesn’t always work for everyone, especially those receiving excess benefits.

Maximizing Benefits as a Couple or Family

Communication is Key: Married couples should discuss their Social Security claiming strategies together, as one spouse’s decision can affect the other’s benefits.

Weighing Options: Consider factors like your desired retirement age, financial needs, and potential family benefits before making any claiming decisions.

The Spousal Benefit Trap: Social Security’s benefit formula favors lower-paid workers. Their retirement benefits replace a higher percentage of their pre-retirement income compared to high earners. Spousal benefits are capped at 50% of your spouse’s primary insurance amount (PIA). This means that if you earned a lower income throughout your career, even if you paid into Social Security, your retirement benefit might be higher than the potential spousal benefit, effectively eliminating it.

Planning for the Spousal Benefit Trap

For couples with a significant difference in earnings, the spouse with the lower income might benefit from waiting to claim their retirement benefit until FRA and relying solely on the spousal benefit from their higher-earning spouse. This strategy assumes the spouse with the higher earnings has already filed for their retirement benefit, and both spouses were 62 before January 2, 2016 (due to rule changes).

Important Considerations:

Delayed Retirement Credits: While delaying your retirement benefit increases the monthly amount, it won’t necessarily translate to a higher overall benefit if it eliminates your spousal benefit.

Survivor Benefits: If your spouse passes away, you would then be eligible for a survivor benefit based on their earnings record, which would likely be even higher than your spousal benefit.

Explore Your Options with a Financial Professional

Social Security calculations can be complex, especially for couples.  Consider consulting with a financial professional familiar with Social Security rules to develop a personalized claiming strategy that maximizes your total lifetime benefits.  They can help you navigate the intricacies of the program and ensure you’re making informed decisions about your retirement income.

Additional Considerations

The formula used to calculate your primary insurance amount (PIA) is progressive. This means lower earners receive a higher percentage of their pre-retirement income compared to high earners. There can be a situation where claiming your retirement benefit eliminates your eligibility for a spousal benefit, even if you paid into Social Security throughout your career. This is because Social Security prioritizes your benefits, and your retirement benefit might exceed the capped spousal benefit amount.

Suspending your retirement benefit in hopes of a higher payout at 70 might not always be the best strategy, especially if you qualify for excess benefits. You may lose out on benefits entirely during the suspension period and not see an increase when you restart.

Social Security Resources:

Social Security offers a wealth of information online at If you have questions or need help navigating your specific situation, consider contacting the Social Security Administration for personalized guidance.


We are not affiliated with the Social Security Administration or any other governmental agency.  

Pinnacle Financial

The Pinnacle team’s primary objective is to provide holistic financial strategies. Our ultimate vision is to educate clients about their own personal financial challenges and potential solutions regarding complex financial issues.

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