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Wealth Defense: When Should You Start Social Security Benefits?

The foregoing is a re-post of an article that I wrote which was included in The Motley Fool’s Rule Your Retirement newsletter.  Enjoy!

Want to double a chunk of your retirement income? It’s easy — just delay taking Social Security by about six years!

OK, so it’s not really that simple. The time to apply for Social Security benefits is different for each individual; there is no magical “best age” for everyone. Thus, to maximize your benefit, it’s important to understand the consequences of choosing to apply at different ages.

It all starts with the most important age: your full retirement age, or FRA (see table below). If you receive your Social Security retirement benefit before your FRA, the benefit will be reduced. The biggest reduction is at age 62, the earliest you can begin receiving benefits (except for widows and widowers, who can begin survivors’ benefits at 60).

Year of Birth Full Retirement Age
1943-1954 66
1955 66 and 2 months
1956 66 and 4 months
1957 66 and 6 months
1958 66 and 8 months
1959 66 and 10 months
1960 and later 67

The more you delay applying for benefits after your FRA, up to age 70, the more your benefit will increase. At 70, the benefit no longer increases. To show how age affects Social Security, the table below displays estimated annual benefits for a person born on June 1, 1950, who earned $60,000 last year (all amounts are in future, or inflated, dollars).

Worth the Wait?

Age Annual Benefit
62 $13,764
64 $17,064
66 $21,300
68 $26,796
70 $33,048

The SSA employs really smart actuaries who have the very fun job of poring over death statistics (which may or may not involve midnight visits to cemeteries — I can’t divulge my sources). These actuaries aim to coordinate the reductions and increases with average life expectancy so that it shouldn’t matter when you take your benefit; it should work out about the same no matter when you start. But average life expectancy hasn’t quite caught up with actuarial estimates. So, since the average life is slightly less than the crossover point, it’s a bit in your favor to start early if you’re the average person who lives to the average life expectancy.

Factors to Consider

Despite what the actuaries say, there are times to delay taking Social Security to increase the chances that you’ll receive the most bang from your benefits.

Will you live longer than average? About one of every four people age 65 today will live past age 90; one in 10 will live past age 95. So if your family leans past the occasional octogenarian, add longevity to your equation. When delaying benefits, the break-even point usually ranges from age 78 to 82. It’s no coincidence the average life expectancies for men and women in the U.S. are about 76 and 81, respectively.

Will you continue working? You can receive Social Security while still earning a paycheck, but doing so before your FRA could reduce your monthly benefit, depending on how much you’re earning. This is made up for when you reach FRA, but it’s important to know so that you can plan for the benefit reductions. Also, if you continue to work while receiving benefits, you’ll continue accruing credit for your annual wages. If you have earlier years on your record with low (or no) wages, your benefit could increase.

Do you really need the money? If you’re ill, have a shortened life expectancy, or face limited resources, it may be necessary to take Social Security early. The financial calculations I do for my clients always assume the recipient will live to at least 80 and can use other resources until age 70. If one or both of these circumstances is not the case for you, it probably makes more sense to take your benefits earlier.

Do you have a spouse or dependents? The age you apply for benefits locks you into a benefit base for the rest of your life. (Technically, you can get a do-over within 12 months of filing if you give back all the money.) Your benefit base might affect your spouse’s benefit, both when you’re alive and if you die first. The benefit base can also determine payments to other family members. We’ll delve more into this next month, when we explore strategies for maximizing family benefits.

Let the Numbers Do the Talking

Want to see how application age can affect your benefit? The SSA has a collection of online Social Security calculators to help estimate your benefit amounts at various ages, which can help you in your decision-making.

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