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When Social Security imposes a household maximum

My husband and I have both worked for 45 years to earn our maximum Social Security benefits at retirement. But I’ve heard there’s a maximum per household for Social Security benefits. Is this true? It seems unfair to penalize a married couple for living together in the same home.

Relax. You and your husband don’t have to break up to collect full benefits based on your two work records.

The household maximum rule you’ve heard about applies to Social Security benefits that are based on a single earnings record. This rule typically comes into play when a worker dies leaving several minor children.

Children receive survivor benefits based on the work record of the deceased parent until they turn 18 (19 if still in high school). Each child is eligible to receive 75 percent of the parent’s Primary Insurance Amount, or PIA — the monthly benefit the parent would have collected at his or her full retirement age — subject to a family maximum. That maximum, determined by a mathematical formula, generally is 150 percent to 180 percent of the PIA.

A widow or widower caring for a child under age 16 also qualifies for a survivor benefit, subject both to the family maximum and to an annual earnings limit. (Children’s survivor benefits are unaffected by their surviving parent’s earnings.)

Let’s say there are three minor children whose surviving parent earns too much to qualify for a benefit. If the deceased parent’s PIA is $2,400, the family maximum is about $3,600. Each child will receive $1,200 a month. After the oldest child’s benefit ends at age 18, the two remaining minor children can collect their full 75 percent benefit, i.e., $1,800 each — without exceeding the family maximum.

THE BOTTOM LINE Social Security benefits payable on one work record are subject to a household maximum.


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