Social Security Benefits Claiming Strategies for Married Couple with Age and Earnings Gaps

 In retirement planning

Optimizing Social Security claiming would be straightforward if most couples had similar work histories and comparable earnings. Picking the ideal filing age would just involve assessing two roughly equal retirement benefits.

However, in reality equal careers are uncommon among spouses. Frequently one partner ends up earning significantly more over their working life than the other. Or a spouse may spend critical years away from the workforce focused on caregiving responsibilities for children or other family members rather than career progression.

These income and work history mismatches introduce greater complexity when strategizing combined household claims. Additional analysis around spousal and survivor benefits comes into play beyond assessing individual worker benefits in isolation. Ultimately the goal shifts to coordinating joint decisions to maximize total lifetime income from multiple benefit types given disparate earning levels and gaps in paid work records.

Social Security retirement benefit claiming-age scenarios for married couples.   

So for the sake of this article lets say there is married couple named Jim and Sara.  Jim (high earner, born 1962) has an expected longevity of 85 years. Sara (middle income, born 1970) has greater life expectancy of 87+ years. There is over a 7 year age gap between them. Icameacross an interesting article about this topic in Thinkadvisor. 

Due to Sara’s lower earnings but greater longevity, optimized claiming recommendations focus on increasing future survivor benefits for her. The age gap also means she is likely to receive widow benefits for more years.

General guidance suggests he should delay his own retirement benefit past age 67 to increase the survivor benefit amount Sara would ultimately receive. If Jim passes first, she would need to re-evaluate by filing for widow benefits.

With mismatched ages, earnings, and life expectancies, ideal claiming considers Sara’s longer-term needs as surviving spouse. Coordinating their claims around maximizing her survivor benefit amount aims to optimize total lifetime benefits. 

Analyzing the Claiming Options

Since both Jim & Sara have the same Full Retirement Age (FRA) of 67, here are the Social Security:

Jim’s FRA benefit (at age 67): $2,153/month

Sara’s FRA benefit (at age 67): $1,449/month

Multiple simulations show a $200,000+ difference between suboptimal and optimal lifetime benefits over various scenarios. 

Least Effective (total lifetime benefits of $784,359):   

  • Jim claims early at age 62 ($1,516/month, 70% of full amount)
  • Sara claims at her FRA at age 67 ($1,449/month)
  • Sara receives survivor benefit of $1,516/month   

Barely Improved: 

  • Jim claims early at age 62 ($1,516/month, 70% of full amount)
  • Sara also claims at her FRA 62 ($1,020/month, reduced amount)
  • Sara receives survivor benefit of $1,516/month
  • $790,056 of lifetime benefits 

Moderately Improved:

  • Jim claims early at age 62
  • Sara delays to age 70 for max benefit ($1,796/month)
  • Lifetime benefits of $797,652 

Largest boost: 

  • Jim delays until FRA to claim at 67 ($2,153/month)
  • Sara delays to age 70 for max benefit of $1,796/month
  • Sara becomes entitled to higher survivor benefit of $2,153/month
  • $888,997 in total lifetime benefits 

By running various scenarios, we can better optimize lifetime options by coordinating their claims. Significantly more total income results from thoughtful age/income-based claiming strategies.

f Jim delays claiming until age 67, small tweaks to Sara’s filing can further lift total lifetime benefits:   

  • Jim claims full retirement benefit of $2,153/month at age 67
  • Sara claims full retirement benefit of $1,449/month at age 67
  • Lifetime projection increases to $909,584
  • Jim claims full benefit at age 67
  • Sara claims early reduced benefit of $1,020/month at age 62
  • Sara receives higher survivor benefit of $2,153/month
  • Total lifetime benefits rise to $915,281

So while Jim delaying to age 67 provides significant gains, partial optimizations on Sara’s end can add another ~$20K – $30K depending on exact age and amount she claims before switching to the higher survivor benefits. This highlights the value of coordinating their claims rather than viewing them in isolation.   

Top 3 Claiming Strategies for Maximizing Lifetime Benefits 

According to the ALM authors, three additional claiming strategies are likely to deliver superior outcomes, starting with both Jim and Sara waiting until age 70 to file for their maximum benefits.  

  1. Jim and Sara both delay claiming until age 70  
  • Jim receives $2,669/month
  • Sara receives $1,796/month
  • Total projected benefits of $966,805 
  1. Sara claims early at her full retirement age 67 ($1,449/month)
  • Jim still delays until 70 to maximize survivor benefit for Sara ($2,669/month)
  • Projected total benefits rise to $987,392 
  1. Maximum benefits by Sara claiming early at age 62 ($1,020/month)
  • Jim still delays until 70 ($2,669/month)
  • Survivor benefit preserved for Sara at $2,669/month
  • Projected lifetime benefits reach $993,089  

The analysis shows that Jim delaying claiming to age 70 combined with Sara claiming at either age 67 or 62 delivers superior lifetime results. Some earlier filing for Sara helps boost total benefits further while still preserving maximum survivor benefits for her.


When analyzing Social Security claiming case studies, a critical caveat is appropriately factoring in longevity assumptions. The examples here use 85 and 87 year projected lifespans. However, advisor clients tend to be wealthier and healthier than population averages. So planning around early 90s longevity may be prudent, especially considering rapid improvements in lifespan.

Both the first and second death carry significant impact on total benefits in two-person scenarios. As lifespans extend for higher earners, the likelihood of one spouse living to at least 92 rises substantially. In such cases, delaying one or both individuals’ claiming to age 70 looks increasingly beneficial to maximize lifetime benefits.

Some Social Security calculations show taking benefits earlier can optimize income under lower longevity assumptions. But for couples expected to live into their 90s, it may be a mistake to file before 70. As adviors guide clients on optimizing claims, they must caution against underplanning for longevity given advances enabling longer, healthier lifespans. A few extra years of life expectancy can greatly sway the analysis toward delayed filing.

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