MONEY Social Security

How to Claim Social Security Without Shortchanging Your Spouse

Deciding when to take Social Security can have a big impact on your family's income. Here's what you need to know.

When it comes to claiming Social Security, millions of people make this huge mistake: overlooking the impact on their family’s income.

Many people don’t realize that Social Security pays a host of benefits beyond your individual retirement income. The program may also pay so-called auxiliary benefits to your spouse, your children and even your parents. A separate program may provide auxiliary benefits if you become disabled, and, in some cases, if you are divorced or if you have passed away. The amount of these benefits is tied to your earnings record—the wages you’ve earned over a lifetime during which you’ve forked over Social Security payroll taxes—and your decision on when to file your claim.

To make the best choices about when to claim Social Security, anyone who is, or was, married, and especially those with children, needs to consider not only their own retirement benefits but also benefits that might be available to family members. This is especially true of survivor benefits.

Let me give you an example. (I wish it was simple but very little about Social Security is simple.) Say you’re 62 and your wife is 58. You’ve heard that delaying Social Security will raise your income but you want the benefits now, so you begin looking into the process of claiming them.

If you file for benefits at 62 (the earliest claiming age unless you’re disabled or a surviving spouse), they will be reduced by 25% from what you could get at full retirement age, which is 66 for people now approaching retirement. What’s more, that payout would be a whopping 76% less than if you waited until age 70 to file. To use convenient numbers, if your benefit at 66 would be $1,000 a month, you would get only $750 a month if you filed at age 62 but $1,320 a month if you waited until age 70.

Perhaps you’re okay with receiving lower income, if you start getting it sooner. But how about your family members? These reductions would also apply to their auxiliary benefits.

The most dramatic impact of early claiming decisions affects widows. Husbands are overwhelmingly likely to begin taking their retirement benefits before their full retirement age, according to Social Security data. Yet husbands are likely to die several years before their wives, statistics show, which leaves many widows struggling on small incomes.

Granted, many women have salary records of their own, and as their wages have increased over the past 30 years, so have Social Security benefits. But many women now reaching retirement age have not accumulated Social Security benefits equal to that earned by their husbands.

That inequality is a real problem for widows. While they both are alive, each spouse can collect his or her own Social Security benefit. But after one dies, the surviving spouse can only collect the greater of the two benefits. This is likely to be the husband’s benefit, even if it’s been reduced because he filed for it early.

As a result, millions of widows in this country are receiving reduced survivor benefits based on their late husband’s earnings record. Had he waited to file, their survivor benefits would have been higher—much higher in many cases.

The trend is so pronounced that the agency devised a special way of calculating benefits to try and ease its impact. It’s called the Retirement Insurance Benefit Limit, or RIB-LIM in the agency’s acronym-crazy jargon. It’s also known as the Widow(er)’s Limit.

When you make the decision when to claim Social Security, make sure it’s in the best interest of everyone in the family. To really understand this decision, you’ll need to know about Social Security’s family maximum benefits. Tune in next week to learn how they work.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. He is an award-winning business journalist and a research fellow at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

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