How to Navigate Social Security When There’s a Big Age Gap Between You and Your Spouse

Being married has its benefits. Not only are there financial perks, but there’s of course something to be said for the companionship involved.

But when it comes to retirement planning, being married can add a level of complexity to the mix, especially when it comes to Social Security. Landing on the ideal filing age is tough enough when you have only your own needs to consider, but trying to figure out what’s best for both you and your spouse can be tricky.

In fact, things could become even more challenging on the Social Security front if there’s a substantial age difference between you and your spouse. If that’s the case, here’s one strategy worth looking at.

Older man and woman sitting on couch, looking at laptop

Image source: Getty Images.

Protecting your spouse in your absence

For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume there’s a 10-year age difference between you and your spouse, and you’re the one who’s older. Let’s also assume that you were the much higher earner in your relationship, and that you’ll be entitled to a much higher monthly benefit from Social Security.

Generally speaking, your own life expectancy should help dictate when you file for benefits, especially since the convention is to file as early as possible if you don’t expect to live a long life. You’re entitled to your full monthly benefit based on your earnings history at full retirement age, which is 66, 67, or somewhere in between, depending on your year of birth. You can also file as early as age 62 for a reduced benefit, or delay your filing and grow your benefits by 8% a year in the process, up until you reach the age of 70.

You may be tempted to claim your benefits once you turn 62 for a couple of reasons. First, if you’re unsure about your life expectancy, it buys you some assurance that you’ll come away with a decent lifetime payout from Social Security. Secondly, it could buy you the opportunity to do more things with your much younger spouse while you still have the energy for them — for example, do that trek in the Andes you’ve always talked about.

But from a long-term planning perspective, if you expect your spouse to outlive you by many years and your spouse isn’t entitled to that generous a Social Security benefit based on his or her wage history, then your best bet may be to delay your own filing as long as possible — until age 70. That way you’ll score the highest possible monthly benefit based on your earnings history. Then, once you pass away, your spouse will be entitled to a survivor benefit equal to 100% of your monthly benefit, provided he or she waits until full retirement age to claim it.

Of course, in delaying your filing, you may get less out of Social Security in your own lifetime. And you may need to sacrifice certain goals that filing earlier would otherwise help you achieve. But by delaying your benefit as long as possible, you’ll set your spouse up with a more robust income stream for life, thereby giving your partner the maximum amount of financial protection you can. And that’s a great legacy to leave behind.

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