Spouses can claim benefits. Only about half (48 percent) of those who are married or who have ever been married are aware that they're eligible for Social Security spousal benefits. Spousal payments can be worth as much as 50 percent of the higher earner's Social Security payment. Dual-earner couples who have reached their full retirement age can even claim Social Security twice by signing up for spousal payments, then later switching to payments based on their own work record. "If both members of the couple wait until the full retirement age of 66, then either one of the spouses could begin receiving a spousal benefit based on the other spouse's record, and then continue to delay their benefit up until age 70, which would then maximize both of their benefits," says Jim Blankenship, a certified financial planner for Blankenship Financial Planning in New Berlin, Ill., and author of A Social Security Owner's Manual.
How to maximize widow and widower's benefits. Almost all older workers (95 percent) know that widows and widowers can collect Social Security benefits based on the earning record of the deceased spouse. Most people (78 percent) also correctly report that the age the deceased spouse signed up for benefits affects how much the surviving spouse will get. But only 52 percent of respondents correctly reported that the age the surviving spouse claims benefits can also affect how much he or she will be paid. To receive the maximum widow or widower's benefit, the surviving spouse must claim no earlier than his or her full retirement age. "Typically, the higher-earning spouse is the husband. The later that he waits to [receive] benefits, the higher the survivor's benefit will be at his demise," says Blankenship. "If he began receiving benefits early, at age 62, that would permanently reduce the amount that his wife could receive as a spousal benefit and the survivor's benefit she could receive upon his passing."