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Dear Dr. Don,
I am 60, and my wife is 62 1/2. We both worked and will get our own Social Security benefits. My benefit at 62 will be $1,500, and hers is $1,100. I am still working, and she is recently retired with a pension. Money to live on is not an issue. We both are healthy and expect to live beyond age 80. What is the best way for us to maximize our combined total benefit? I have read about several strategies (such as “file and suspend”) and am totally confused.

— Thomas Timing

Dear Thomas,
Here’s what I like to focus on: Working couples nearing retirement need to consider the threat that they’ll outlive their savings and incomes. That’s a far more pressing need over strategizing how to claim Social Security to provide the highest dollar value of benefits. This is particularly the case for those who don’t have short-term concerns about income in retirement.

Short-term gain

Front-loading your benefits by taking Social Security before full retirement only maximizes your benefits if you die young. And even then, you have to consider what early retirement does to your survivors benefits.

The truth about timing benefits

What the Social Security Administration has found out about the timing for retirees taking benefits is interesting. In general, you get about the same dollar value of total Social Security benefits over your lifetime, regardless of when you decide to take them.

From my perspective, you’re in the best financial position in the event of a long life if you wait until full retirement age to start receiving benefits. If possible, the spouse whose work record has the higher income levels should wait until age 70 and earn delayed retirement credits. That higher-earning spouse can choose to “file and suspend” benefits when reaching full retirement age, which is 66 for both you and your wife. The file-and-suspend strategy allows a spouse to receive a spousal benefit before age 70.

Your specific situation

In your case, your wife should wait until her full retirement age to take Social Security. Since she can’t claim a spousal benefit until you file, and since I’m advising you not to file until you at least reach full retirement age, she should file for benefits at age 66 based on her own work record.

My guess is that you know which spouse has the more robust (higher) earnings record. If not, you can always check it out through a page on the Social Security website.

If it’s you, Thomas, you don’t want to start getting a spousal benefit when your wife turns 66. You’re younger and would not be at full retirement age, and if you start taking Social Security prior to full retirement age, your benefit is based on both your work record and the amount of the spousal benefit. Your benefits would be permanently reduced because you didn’t wait to receive benefits based on your own work record.

Who has the higher earnings record?

But Thomas, if you’re the 1 with the higher earnings record, you can claim the spousal benefit when you reach full retirement age (66), and delay receiving your own retirement benefit until a later date through file-and-suspend. You’ll take advantage of delayed retirement credits, and the 2 of you will receive more Social Security as a couple after you turn 70 than if you hadn’t waited.

If 1 of you passes away first …

It’s not just about the benefits you receive in your lifetime; it’s also about the survivors benefits your spouse will receive after you’re gone. Earning delayed retirement credits on the higher-earning spouse’s record doesn’t increase the spousal benefit, but does increase the survivors benefit.

It’s also important to note that boosting your monthly benefit amount by earning delayed retirement credits increases the benefit payments subject to Social Security’s annual cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, which are the raises in benefit payments that reflect inflation.

Thanks to Edward Lafferty, public affairs specialist at the Social Security Administration, for helping me with this reply.

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