Earlier this summer one of the "think tanks" that studies Social Security issues came out with an especially interesting report. It noted that today most American husbands and wives both work, and when they make future plans, they do so with expectations of retiring at about the same time. But because husbands tend to be older than their wives (by an average of four years), retirement age decisions can become complicated and need to be coordinated.

As the report (from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College) stated, "Many husbands and wives differ in age and health status, and they often belong to separate employer-sponsored pension plans...."

However, the one common denominator for nearly all couples is that they are covered by Social Security. So here is a brief primer on some basic Social Security considerations that couples should take into account when choosing a retirement date.

Both a husband and wife are, of course, eligible for their own retirement benefits based on their own work records. Often, however, one spouse may work at much lower-paying jobs throughout his or her career, or stay at home to care for the couple's children. In that case, Social Security always pays the lower-earning spouse whatever benefit he or she might have earned through work - and then does calculations to see if his or her benefits 'as a spouse' would be higher. If they would be, that person would get a combination of benefits equaling the higher spouse's benefit. And that is where the calculations and the decisionmaking can become tricky.

A spouse is entitled to one-half of the retired worker's full benefit amount, unless the spouse begins collecting benefits before his or her own full retirement age. In that case, the amount of the spouse's benefit is permanently reduced.

For example, based on the present full retirement age of 65 and four months, if a spouse begins collecting benefits:

•At 64, the benefit amount would be about 46 percent of the retired worker's full benefit;

•At age 63, it would be about 42 percent; and

•At age 62, 37.5 percent.

And just to show how tough real-life financial decisions can become, let's suppose that there is a big age difference between the couple - and that they have a child. In that case, if one spouse is taking care of a child who is younger than age 16 or disabled and receiving Social Security benefits, he or she gets full (one-half) benefits, regardless of age.

Please note that a Social Security spousal benefit may be reduced if either the husband or wife receives a pension from a federal, state or local government based on work where he or she did not pay Social Security taxes.

If you would like to get a better idea of your own situation, I would recommend visiting our benefit planners Web site at www.socialsecurity.gov. There you can find more detailed information and use various calculators to tailor benefit estimates to your own situation.

Dale Hilding is the Social Security manager in Pendleton

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