EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in the August 2009 issue of Kiplinger's Retirement Report. To subscribe, click here.
There is no perfect time to apply for Social Security. You can claim early and take a smaller monthly payment for a longer period of time. Or you can claim later, collecting a larger benefit that is based on a shorter life expectancy. Your decision depends on many things beyond your need for the money: whether you're married, your spouse's earnings compared with yours, how much you have saved and your health.
Your goal is to maximize your Social Security benefits, but not all beneficiaries understand how to make the most of this guaranteed source of inflation-adjusted income. Over the years, Kiplinger's Retirement Report has written about little-known strategies to stretch government benefits. Those stories have been among our biggest source of reader inquiries, so we're returning to the topic.
Before we review the strategies, you need to know some Social Security basics. If you were born between 1943 and 1954, you can claim your full benefit, called the primary insurance amount, at age 66. The earliest you can claim Social Security is 62. But your benefit will be permanently reduced by a certain percentage for each month you claim before your 66th birthday. For instance, if you claim at age 62, you'll get 75% of your full benefit. If you claim at 64 and 9 months, you'll receive 90%. For each year you delay claiming benefits between 66 and 70, your benefit will increase by 8%. Hold off all four years, and you earn a 32% bonus, plus all accumulated cost-of-living adjustments.
A lower-earning spouse can claim a benefit based on his or her work record at age 62. Or the spouse can claim a "spousal" benefit, as long as the higher-earning spouse has started collecting benefits. If the lower earner is at full retirement age, he or she can collect a benefit that's 50% of the higher earner's primary insurance amount.
However, if the lower earner collects a spousal benefit before reaching full retirement age, the benefit will be reduced by a set percentage. For instance, if the spouse claims at 64 and 3 months, the spousal benefit will be 42.7% of the higher earner's benefit. And if the lower-earning spouse collects his or own benefit early and then "steps up" to the spousal benefit later, that spousal benefit will also be reduced.
Now let's turn to the strategies. At the risk of inviting accusations of sexism, we will refer to the lower-earning spouse as the wife. That's the way it usually is, and she tends to live longer than the husband, too.
First, if you're single. It usually makes sense to wait until full retirement age to start claiming benefits, unless you expect to die early or need the money sooner. This is especially true for women, who are more likely to reach the "break-even age," when the total value of full benefits equals what you would have received by claiming reduced benefits earlier.
Unless you have significant savings, it generally pays for singles to claim at 66, says Henry Hebeler, creator of the Web site AnalyzeNow.com. Many singles will not have enough savings to support a delay until age 70, Hebeler says. But a single person who collects at 62 is more likely to run out of money at an earlier age than someone with the same amount of savings who waits until 66, he says. "It usually works out that a single person should take benefits at full retirement age," he says.
You can use a free program on Hebeler's site to make your own calculations. Plug in your savings, tax bracket, annual spending and assumptions on investment growth. You can see how long your money will last based on when you start taking your benefits.
Married men should delay. Married couples can maximize total benefits by coordinating their start dates. The top goal is to increase the benefit for the surviving spouse, who gets 100% of the higher-earning spouse's benefit when he dies. If the higher-earning husband delays until 70, his survivor will get an extra 32% plus cost-of-living adjustments.
There are two ways that the surviving spouse would get less than 100% of her husband's primary insurance amount. If he collects Social Security before age 66, his benefit -- and his wife's survivor benefit -- will be lower. Also, the survivor benefit will be reduced if the husband dies and the wife collects the survivor benefit before turning 66. If she waits until her full retirement age, she'll get 100% of the survivor benefit. The size of her survivor benefit, however, will not be affected if she collects her own benefit or a spousal benefit early.