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Married couples have 81 ways to claim Social Security. Here's how to maximize your benefits

Couple's guide to Social Security
Couple's guide to Social Security

Marriage can make life easier, but not when it comes to Social Security.

A single person only has to consider nine different scenarios when claiming retirement benefits. For married couples, the available options for filing strategies grow to 81.

"The Social Security shopping mall has 81 stores for married couples," said David Freitag, a financial planning consultant at the MassMutual Financial Group.

"One size fits one with Social Security planning. It really needs to be tailored to each couple," he added.

Here's what you should consider when developing your game plan:

Generally speaking, for singles, the longer you wait to claim benefits, the more you'll receive. Claiming before your full retirement age, which ranges between 66 and 67 depending on when you were born, permanently reduces your benefits. Each year you delay from your full retirement age until you turn 70 will boost your benefits by 8 percent.

Most people file before they can receive their maximum Social Security benefits. (See table below.)

Claiming strategies for married couples, or divorced people who were married to their ex-spouse for at least 10 years, can differ drastically from those employed by singles.

"Most people don't understand that neither the survivor benefit nor spousal benefits increase after full retirement age," said Rob Kron, head of investment and retirement education for BlackRock. "Many think that because individual benefits increase if you wait until 70, that these other two benefits do as well. They don't."

Spousal benefits

Here are the basics of spousal benefits: Those who were married for at least 10 consecutive years can claim either their own benefits based on their earnings — or half of the former spouse's benefits, whichever is higher, once they reach full retirement age.

That means that a higher earner in the couple may wait to file at 70 while the lower earner can claim at full retirement age to maximize their total benefits as a couple.

"A higher earner should not base his or her strategy on their own life expectancy, but rather base it on the joint life expectancy of the couple," Kron said. He noted that actuarially, there is a 50 percent chance that one member of a healthy 65-year-old couple will live to age 93.

An ex-spouse may be entitled to benefits based on your earnings, but it doesn't affect your payouts. Half of older workers recently surveyed by Fidelity thought their benefits could be reduced if an ex made a claim. That's not true.

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Survivor benefits

Survivor benefits add to the complexity of your Social Security planning.

The amount of the survivor benefit is based on the earnings of the person who died. Your widow or widower can receive full benefits at their full retirement age or at any age if they take care of your children who are younger than age 16 or disabled. People can claim reduced survivor benefits at age 60.

That's not all. People who remarry age 60 or later can collect survivor benefits from an ex, if that former spouse is deceased.

"I actually guided a widow client to wait to age 60 to remarry, so she would not lose the opportunity to collect her deceased husband's Social Security should the need arise," said Ed Gjertsen II, a certified financial planner and vice president of Mack Investment Securities in Northfield, Illinois. "When did all this get so complicated?"

Run the numbers

No Social Security plan is bulletproof — because you don't know when you or your spouse will die.

The financial effects of your claiming strategy may be hard to figure out, but you don't have to go it alone. Free Social Security calculators can be a good place to start to craft your plan, said Freitag at the MassMutual Financial. If you need more help, consult a qualified financial advisor.

The most important thing for couples is to have a plan when it comes to Social Security claiming. "Pick a strategy that plays out well regardless of where the longevity cards fall," said BlackRock's Kron.

Correction: This article was revised to correct that Social Security benefits grow by 8 percent each year you delay from your full retirement age until age 70.