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Couples' guide to maximizing Social Security benefits

When you're married, finding the right Social Security claiming strategy should be a joint effort.

Among married couples receiving Social Security, 48 percent count on that check for at least half of their income, according to government data. For one in five couples, it's 90 percent or more of their income.

So deciding when and how to claim isn't a choice to make lightly.

Know your options

Couples' claiming choices are dwindling. The once-popular "file and suspend" strategy went away this spring. Another, called a "restricted application," is now only available if at least one partner was age 62 before January 2, 2016.

But you still have the option to claim your own benefit, or collect an amount equivalent to half of what your spouse is eligible to receive. If one of you earned substantially more, picking that spousal benefit could be the more valuable choice, said certified financial planner Jeffrey Boyer, a partner at Regent Atlantic in Morristown, New Jersey. Check the numbers on your Social Security earning record.

Delay strategically

Generally speaking, the longer you wait to claim benefits, the more you'll receive. Claiming before your full retirement age permanently reduces your benefits; each year you delay from full retirement age until you turn 70 boosts the total by 8 percent.

The benefits of waiting are magnified for married couples, said Boyer. Say the husband is the higher earner. If he delays collecting benefits until at least his full retirement age and ideally until age 70, he's locked in the maximum benefit for himself for life. He's also secured the highest possible survivor benefit for his wife, should she outlive him.

"If you can afford to delay, you're going to get hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional benefits, assuming one spouse lives a long life," he said.

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