If you've worked and paid into the Social Security system, then you're entitled to retirement benefits, either at age 62 (for early retirement) or later. The amount of your monthly Social Security benefit depends on your lifetime work record and the amount you've earned over all those years. If your spouse is also eligible for benefits, the calculation is the same. Social Security doesn't cap retirement benefits for a couple, but there is a maximum amount an individual can draw; the agency also offers the option of spouse benefits.
Family Maximums and Retirement Benefits
Generally, the more you've earned, the higher your Social Security benefits, whether for disability or retirement. Social Security does apply a "family maximum" amount in the case of someone drawing disability benefits. But for retirement, there is no cap on the combined benefits of two-earner couples. Using the mathematical formula for calculating benefits, there is a limit to the amount any individual can draw. In 2013, this maximum benefit stood at $2,533 a month for a worker who waited until full retirement age to collect benefits.
Social Security offers an option to spouses who have stayed home or worked very little and earned only a small retirement benefit. Spouse benefits are available to a married person whose spouse is also eligible for retirement benefits. To collect spouse benefits, you must be at least 62 years of age or caring for a disabled child. If you wait until your own full retirement age to collect spouse benefits, then the benefit amount is half of that drawn by your spouse. If you start collecting them early, then the spouse benefit is reduced.
Spouse vs. Retirement Benefits
The more disparity there is between the lifetime earnings in a married couple, the more incentive there is to collect spouse benefits, rather than two retirement benefit checks. Even without a cap, a two-earner couple in which both spouses have earned roughly the same amount is at a disadvantage. A couple in which the husband earned all of the money, for example, will draw more when spouse and retirement benefits are combined; the more the husband earned, the greater the difference.
Working After 62
Social Security places a cap on benefits, in effect, if you work, draw a retirement check and are younger than full retirement age. The agency reduces the retirement benefit by $1 for every $2 you earn. The more you earn, the smaller your benefit; eventually, with more earnings, your retirement benefit goes to zero. There is no effect on your spouse's retirement benefits, which are subject to the same rule. The reduction ends when you reach full retirement age, which varies from 65 to 67, depending on the year of your birth. If you intend to work at age 62 and later, it's best to delay retirement benefits until you either stop working or reach full retirement age.
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