Social Security Now and Later Spousal/Dependent Benefit Strategy

The rules changed in 2016

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Married couples might be able to receive more income from Social Security by looking at their options as a couple rather than as two individuals. You have a claiming option available that's sometimes referred to as "double-dipping" if one of you was born on or before Jan. 1, 1954. This "collect now and later" strategy provides some income in the present while locking in a higher benefit for later.

However, due to changes in the Social Security rules that were signed into law in November 2015, only those who reached age 62 on or before Jan. 1, 2016, can file a restricted application for spousal benefits to utilize this option.

Key Takeaways

  • To take advantage of a "now and later" Social Security strategy, you must file a restricted application, you must have reached full retirement age (FRA), and your spouse must have applied for benefits.
  • The "file and suspend" approach allowed workers to file and suspend their own benefits while allowing their spouses to collect a spousal benefit, but the deadline for this option has passed.
  • Minor children or dependent grandchildren can collect benefits on a retired spouse's earnings record if the parent is receiving benefits or used the file-and-suspend option prior to May 1, 2016.

The 'Collect Now and Later' Social Security Strategy

The "collect now and later" strategy allows you to collect a spousal benefit while accumulating delayed retirement credits on your own benefit amount. Usually, the higher earner of a couple would consider this approach in order to get the most possible at age 70. That higher age-70 benefit amount would then get locked in as a survivor benefit.

To use this strategy, you must file a restricted application. You must also have reached full retirement age (FRA) and your spouse must have applied for benefits.

The 'File and Suspend' Approach

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 actually eliminated two claiming strategies for a good number of Americans—restricted applications as well as the "file and suspend" approach—unless you're a widow or widower or were born on or before the Jan. 1, 1954, deadline.

If your spouse reached their own FRA prior to April 30, 2016, they had the option to file and suspend benefits. This would have allowed you to collect a spousal benefit immediately.

But that deadline has now passed, and this option has been eliminated for those who turn 66 after May 1, 2016. Those who missed this deadline cannot receive benefits unless their spouses are also receiving benefits. If your spouse suspends her own benefits, this would also suspend any benefits you receive based on their record. The chart below shows a visualization of how file and suspend worked.

Why Doesn't It Work If You Haven't Reached FRA?

If you apply for Social Security benefits before your full retirement age, you automatically qualify for and are given the higher benefit based either on your own earning record or 50 percent of your spouse’s full retirement age benefit.

You have more choices if you wait until FRA to apply, and if you were born on or before Jan. 1, 1954. You can apply for benefits and choose to begin collecting just a spousal benefit based on your spouse’s earnings record, your ex-spouse's if you were married for at least 10 years and you haven't remarried. Your own Social Security benefit would continue to accumulate delayed retirement credits until you reach age 70, then you can switch from taking the spousal benefit to taking your own benefit.

An Example

Kara, age 66, is still working. Her husband, Bob, is collecting Social Security retirement benefits. Kara was born on or before Jan. 1, 1954, so she files a restricted application for Social Security spousal benefits based on Bob’s earnings record. She collects her spousal benefit while working for the next four years. Then, at age 70, she retires and switches to her own, now much larger Social Security benefit.

Keep in mind that if Kara was to continue working up until her FRA, she would lose $1 of her benefits for every $2 she earned over a certain income threshold. The threshold is $17,640 as of 2019. But if you're owed an additional amount because the spousal benefit is larger than your own when your spouse files, this additional amount will automatically be given to you.

Rather than trying to work through all these options on your own, consider using a Social Security calculator to tell you what claiming strategy might work best for you. 

What About the (Grand)Kids?

Minor children—and grandchildren, if they're your dependents—can also collect benefits on a retired spouse's earnings record if the parent is receiving benefits or used the file-and-suspend option prior to May 1, 2016.

The child must be unmarried and under age 18, or age 19 if they're still in high school. They are also eligible if they became disabled before the age of 22, regardless of how old they are now.

The amount of benefits is also equal to up to 50 percent of the parent's benefit. They would be subject to the same income restrictions as an adult if they were to work also: They would lose $1 of their benefits for every $2 they earned over that year's income threshold.

A Word of Warning

The Social Security Administration retains the right to limit overall benefits payable to multiple members of your family. Although your own benefits won't be reduced if your spouse and child are collecting on your work record, total benefits paid to your entire family cannot typically exceed 180 percent of the number of your full retirement benefits.

An exception to this rule exists if your ex-spouse is collecting on your benefits. Your divorced spouse’s benefits do not affect any benefits you or your current spouse may receive.

Article Sources

  1. Social Security Administration. “Deemed Filing for Retirement and Spouse’s Benefits FAQs.”

  2. Social Security Administration. “Benefits Planner: Retirement.”

  3. Social Security Administration. "Deemed Filing for Retirement and Spouse’s Benefits FAQs."

  4. Social Security Administration. "What Do the Recent Claiming Changes Mean for Me?"

  5. Social Security Administration. "If You Were Born Between 1943 and 1954 Your Full Retirement Age Is 66."

  6. Social Security Administration. "If You Are Divorced."

  7. Social Security Administration. “Benefits for Children.”

  8. Social Security Administration. “Benefits for Your Family.”

  9. Social Security Administration. "Benefits for Children," Page 2.