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Kiplinger: Strategies to Boost Your Social Security

Smart Strategies for Married Couples

Using the basics, you can engage in some little-known strategies. Sometimes these flummox Social Security personnel -- but they're all legal.

Say you are the higher earner and want to delay until 70. If your wife is 62 or older, she could collect her own benefit -- but perhaps she'd get more money with a spousal benefit. One catch: She can't collect a spousal benefit until you file for your own.

As long as you're full retirement age, you file for your benefit and your wife applies for a spousal benefit. You ask Social Security to suspend your benefits. Your wife will still receive a spousal benefit, and you can continue to accrue delayed retirement credits until you reapply for benefits, presumably at age 70. Because you're increasing the value of the survivor benefit, this "file and suspend" maneuver supercharges the survivor benefit for your wife if you die first.

To show the advantages of this strategy, here's an illustration by Henry Hebeler, author of Getting Started in a Financially Secure Retirement (Wiley, $20). (You can plug your own numbers into his free "Strategic Social Security Planner" at

Let's take the previous Sam and Alice example, and plug the data into Hebeler's software. If the couple uses the file-and-suspend strategy, Sam files for and suspends his benefit at 66 and Alice takes a spousal benefit. At 70, Sam reapplies for his delayed benefit -- worth $2,640. That's what Alice will get when Sam dies, considerably more than if they both claimed at 62. Total lifetime benefits: $961,000.

To be fair, assume that couple will need to dip into savings to make up for the missing Social Security benefits -- to the tune of $193,000, according to Hebeler's online tool. "They have to make sure they have saved enough money to live on until they get their benefits," Hebeler says. Even after subtracting these costs, the couple will collect at least $120,000 more in lifetime benefits than if they both filed at age 62.

Here's another valuable strategy. In most cases, it's the lower-earning spouse who collects a spousal benefit. But if you're the higher earner, you can bring in some extra money by applying for a spousal benefit at your full retirement age -- and still allow your own benefit to grow until age 70. Once you turn 70, you can switch to your own benefit and your spouse can claim a spousal benefit, of up to 50% of your primary insurance amount. However, her survivor benefit will equal up to 100% of your delayed benefit if you die first.

Do you both want to delay until 70 while bringing in some income? Try the combo strategy: One spouse employs the file-and-suspend strategy, while the other files a restricted application. This way, one spouse can get a spousal benefit for several years, while both earn delayed retirement credits. Both spouses must be full retirement age to employ this strategy.

Consider this illustration from Meyer and Reichenstein. Bernard is 66, a few months older than Linda. His full benefit is $2,000, and hers is $1,200. They both would like to delay collecting their own benefits until 70, but they also want to bring in extra income.

Bernard files for and suspends his benefit at 66. This enables Linda, at 66, to restrict her application to a spousal benefit, which is $1,000 a month. (She could have filed for her own $1,200 benefit, but waiting until 70 will boost the couple's lifetime income.) At 70, her own benefit, with its delayed credits, will have grown to $1,584 a month. Meanwhile, Bernard's benefit will have grown to $2,640, which Linda will receive when her husband dies. If he dies at 85 and she lives until 90, their total lifetime benefits will be $974,112. If, instead, they both file at 62, their total benefits will be $767,223 and Linda's survivor benefit will be lower.


More From Kiplinger:
QUIZ: Test Your Social Security IQ
10 Things You Must Know About Social Security
SPECIAL REPORT: Maximizing Your Social Security Benefits

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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