Retirement Benefits

When should a married couple start their Social Security retirement benefits?

* If the husband is the higher earner, and he is in good health, he should wait until age 70 to begin. That will give him the maximum benefit. Assuming the husband dies first (which usually is the case), his widow would receive that maximum benefit (plus inflation adjustments) as long as she lives.

* If the wife has a short work history, and will receive a modest Social Security check on her own record, she should begin at her normal retirement age. For people born from 1943 through 1954, that’s 66 years old.

If the wife files earlier than her normal retirement age, she will have a reduced benefit. Also, once her husband starts his Social Security benefits, the wife will get a spousal benefit (50 percent of her husband’s benefit), if that’s higher than her own benefit. If a wife has started earlier than normal retirement age, her spousal benefit will be permanently reduced.

Waiting until normal retirement age maximizes both spousal and survivor benefits for a lower earning wife. Such a wife will get no added advantage if she delays filing beyond age 66. To avoid a benefit reduction, the wife should file at age 66, on her own record, then switch to a larger spousal benefit when the husband starts benefits at 70. This 70-66 strategy is a smart and very common way to maximize Social Security income for healthy couples.