In the 1930s, when Social Security was signed into law, it was a pretty straightforward process for eligible retirees.
There wasn’t a difficult decision about when to file for benefits. You had to be 65 to claim your benefits — there was no early retirement age. And delaying past 65 didn’t get you extra — so it really wasn’t worth waiting.
Today, it’s far tougher to pin down exactly when you should file — even if you only consider age (which you shouldn’t). You can take your benefits as early as 62 — though the earlier you claim, the less you’ll get — or as late as age 70 (with the incentive that you’ll get 8% more for each year you wait past your full retirement age).
Of course, some people don’t have much choice; they claim at 62 because they need the money. They’ve lost their job or had to quit because of health or other issues. According to the Social Security Administration, among Social Security beneficiaries, 48% of married couples and 69% of unmarried individuals (opens in new tab) receive 50% or more of their income from Social Security.
There’s also the fear factor: Will Social Security be solvent when it’s time for you to start collecting? The number of Americans 65 and older is projected to increase to approximately 79 million in 2035 from 49 million today. Right now, there are 2.8 workers putting money into the Social Security bucket for every one retiree taking money out. In 2035, there will be 2.2 workers contributing for every one retiree being paid benefits. It’s not surprising that people file early, based on their belief that the money may not be there later.
And then there are always those who really don’t give the whole thing much thought — they’re tired of working, or they just do what their parents did. In many cases, that’s filing before their full retirement age.
Still, most of the people I see do fret over the filing decision. They’d like to think there’s some magical equation that will give them their exact “break-even point,” so they don’t claim too soon or wait too late. And there is … kind of. You can run the numbers using calculators provided at www.ssa.gov/planners/calculators/ (opens in new tab), www.aarp.org/tools/ (opens in new tab) and other sites.
Before you go to the trouble, though, you should know that Social Security benefits are designed to be actuarially equivalent for a person with an average lifespan. Which means it shouldn’t make much of a difference when you start collecting benefits.
There are, however, many external factors that can greatly affect what you, as an individual, actually receive. Taking those things into account could help you make a smarter decision about when to file. They include:
1. Your health and family history.
If you’re not well or have a family history of heart disease, cancer or some other illness, you may want to retire and take your benefits as early as possible. That way you can enjoy doing what you want and spend precious time with your loved ones.
On the other hand, if you’re healthy and/or most of your family members have had a long life, you may wish to delay filing and get the maximum benefit to see you through what could be a decades-long retirement. Remember, Americans in general are living longer. The first person to receive a monthly Social Security check — Ida May Fuller (opens in new tab) — lived to 100, but that was rare back then. In 1940, when Fuller turned 65, the average woman her age could expect to live another 14½ years (opens in new tab). Now, the average 65-year-old woman can expect to live another 21½ years (opens in new tab).
2. Your spouse.
If you’re married, one of your primary concerns is probably what will happen to your spouse if you die first. When one spouse dies, the lower of the two Social Security payments goes away. If you have a pension, depending on which survivorship option you choose at retirement, he or she also could lose that income stream. So it’s important to maximize the higher earner’s benefit when possible — especially if Social Security will be a major source of income.
If the higher earner in the family is one with a poor family history of longevity, you should plan early in case delaying is not an option and you have to claim a smaller benefit.
3. Your taxes.
Back in Ida May Fuller’s day, Social Security benefits were exempt from taxes. That’s no longer the case for everyone. Now, the IRS measures your “provisional income” to decide if you’re required to pay taxes on your benefits. It’s calculated by adding your adjusted gross income, any tax-free interest you received and 50% of your Social Security benefits. If the number is over the designated threshold (opens in new tab) ($25,000 and up annually for singles and $32,000 and up for those married filing jointly), based on your filing status, your Social Security benefits could be taxed up to 50% or even 85%.
Because many people now retire with a significant amount of savings in a tax-deferred retirement account, this is an important consideration. If you’re getting Social Security income and withdrawing from your IRA at the same time, you may pay more in taxes. You might want to delay claiming for a while and withdraw from your tax-deferred accounts at a lower rate.
4. Your other assets.
Before you decide to delay claiming to save on taxes or to get a higher Social Security payment down the road, you should be sure you have enough income to cover your current expenses without drawing too much from your retirement savings. You’ll likely want to leave some money there to keep growing in case you need it later in retirement.
5. Your legacy.
If leaving behind something for your children is a priority, you could use your Social Security income to make that happen. One way would be to claim your benefits (which they can’t inherit) and leave more in your IRA (which they can). Or, if you are wealthy and don’t need Social Security to support your lifestyle, you could consider claiming your Social Security benefits and using that money to purchase life insurance.
The critical thing to remember is that your Social Security filing decision can’t be made in a vacuum. It should be an important piece of an overall financial plan. There are hundreds of claiming strategies and thousands of governing rules. To truly maximize your benefits, you’ll have to choose what works best for you, your spouse and your family.
Take your time, think it through and don’t hesitate to ask for help from a qualified financial adviser.
Kim Franke-Folstad contributed to this article.
Michael Macke is vice president and co-owner of Petros Estate & Retirement Planning, a company headquartered in Jacksonville, Fla., with offices in St. Augustine and Winter Park.
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