Tom Margenau | Social Security and You: Family maximum doesn’t apply to couples | Lifestyles


I regularly receive questions from prospective retirees who have heard about a “family maximum” that applies to Social Security benefits, and they fear that rule will reduce the benefits they owe as a couple.

So, here’s the message of this column: The maximum family rules do not apply to a man and woman who receive Social Security benefits themselves. These maximum rules only apply when children are involved. These are usually cases in which children receive benefits into the account of a deceased parent. Or it could mean that benefits are limited to families of someone receiving disability benefits. But it can also incidentally apply to pensioners who still have minor children at home. When this happens, it is often because a retiree has an adult child who has been disabled since birth.

But again, the focus of today’s column is the scenario of a husband and wife with no minor or disabled adult children at home. And again, the family maximum rules don’t apply to them. Here are questions from readers about this issue.

Q: I will wait until age 70 to take my Social Security so I can get 132% of my Social Security benefit. Then my wife, who has been a housewife all her life, will submit my file and she will receive 50% of my benefit. So together we get 182% of my Social Security benefit. Our accountant said that will be a problem for us because Social Security rules set the family maximum somewhere between 150% and 188% of my benefit percentage. The actual percentage depends on factors I don’t quite understand. The accountant sent me this clipping from what he said is Social Security Regulations. “Retirement and Survivor Benefits Rules: The Family Maximum Formula for Old Age and Survivor Benefits (OASI) is based on a beneficiary’s primary insurance amount (PIA). The PIA is the base amount of a beneficiary’s Social Security benefit before adjustments for retirement age, income, and other factors. SSA calculates the family maximum with a formula. Ultimately, that formula yields a maximum for each family that is between 150% and 188% of the basic social security benefit, or PIA.”

So according to my accountant and this rulebook, if our family maximum is less than 182%, they will somehow reduce our benefits. So now I’m really concerned. Why wait until 70 years to get more benefits if they’re just going to reduce our checks because of this maximum family business?

A: Do not worry. As I mentioned at the beginning of this column, this maximum family does not affect a husband and wife receiving benefits. You will see that the rulebook section your accountant sent you refers to a ‘PIA’. That stands for “primary insurance amount,” which is essentially your full retirement age. That amount can never exceed 100%. You get a higher monthly benefit amount (up to 32% more) because you delay applying for Social Security until age 70. But your PIA will remain at that 100% rate.

Your wife will receive 50% interest. So the maximum that a man and a dependent woman can get in basic (PIA) combined benefits is 150%. (His 100% PIA rate and her 50% spousal rate.) And that 150% rate is not higher than the lowest family maximum rate (which is 150%), so a husband and wife can never be subject to the family maximum.

Q: I will receive my benefit at retirement age. I’m married to a woman who hasn’t worked much, so she gets half of my Social Security. But I also have an ex-wife who hasn’t remarried and hasn’t worked much either, so she also gets half of my Social Security. So I’m going to get 100%, my wife gets 50% and my ex gets 50% too. That’s 200% combined and that’s more than I’ve been told, the 150% maximum that can be paid to my family. So how do they make these adjustments to get to the 150% rate?

A: No adjustments are necessary. All benefits paid to an ex-wife are just “add-on” benefits. They don’t affect the benefits you and your current wife owe, nor do they affect this maximum family business.

Q: My wife and I plan to receive our benefit at the end of the year at age 70. I get an estimated $3,444 per month and my wife gets $3,100. But there are two things we’ve heard about Social Security that scare us. We’ve been told there’s some kind of cap that applies to what we can receive, and we’ve also been told there’s a Social Security marriage penalty that limits what my wife can get to half of my benefit rate. Please help us understand this.

A: As I explained in this column, the family maximum rules do not apply to married couples. And there is no “marriage penalty” associated with Social Security. You said that a woman is limited to half of her husband’s Social Security. That would be a woman who has no social security benefits of her own, or who has a very small benefit herself and therefore qualifies for a dependent woman’s benefit from her husband’s account. Those partner benefits are limited to the 50% rate, but you and your wife each get your own retirement benefit: $3,444 for you and $3,100 for your wife. So combined, you get $6,544 in monthly Social Security benefits.


Before I wrap up this discussion on maximum family confusion, I need to correct an error I discovered on this topic in my little Social Security guide called “Social Security: Simple and Smart.” In the “Child Benefits” section of that book, when I discussed the family maximum, I gave an example where a retiree at age 62 received reduced benefits so that his teenage daughters could claim benefits under his state. And I said it was his reduced benefit that is included in the maximum family calculation. But actually his full payout percentage is used, even if he gets a reduced amount.

However, the message of this column remains the same. When we talk about just a husband and wife receiving benefits, the family maximum never comes into play.

(If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has a book with all the answers. It’s called “Social Security: Simple and Smart.” You can find the book at, or search for it on Amazon or other bookstores. )

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voice
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.


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