Planning for when to begin collecting Social Security retirement benefits is especially important for women since women tend to live longer than men. It's essential that you spend time analyzing this crucial element of your retirement income, regardless of your age or work history. With many options for claiming benefits, the risk of incomplete analysis is the potential forfeiture of thousands of dollars. It isn't the Social Security Administration's job to figure out what's best for you. It's your responsibility.
The reason the decision can be complicated centers around the concept of "spousal benefits." A woman can receive Social Security benefits based on her earnings, her husband's earnings (including a deceased or, in some cases, an ex-husband's earnings, even if she doesn't qualify for her own benefits), or a combination of husband/wife earnings histories. Choosing when to start taking benefits — and how to best coordinate with a husband's benefits — can make a huge difference in how much money you will ultimately receive.
It pays to wait
Social Security retirement benefits can begin as early as age 62, and about 75% of those who are eligible for benefits choose to take them that early. Some who elect to start at 62 are worried about the long-term solvency of Social Security; others are concerned about dying before receiving what they paid into the system. But if you wait until your Full Retirement Age (FRA), you'll receive a higher monthly benefit — and even more if you wait until age 70 (see table for your FRA.)
To show how this works, I accessed my work records and benefits by creating a "my Social Security" account online at www.ssa.gov/myaccount (you should do the same). Since I stayed home with our kids while I was in my 30s, there are several years on my record with no earnings. Because I started a business in 2007 and began earning income in 2009, my benefits estimate has increased. At age 62, my estimated monthly benefit based on my earnings would be $795. At my FRA of 67, it rises to $1,196 (50% higher), and at age 70, my benefit would be $1,519 (91% higher than my age-62 benefit!).
While you might think taking a smaller benefit for a longer period of time would lead to a higher overall payout, for most people it's better to wait. (See our article Maximizing your Social Security Benefits for some exceptions to this "rule.") As we'll soon see, especially for married couples — and even more so when the husband is the higher earner — it pays for the husband to wait as long as possible.
Coordinating benefits with your spouse
Here's where the claiming options become numerous and the calculations become complex. At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, but for the benefit of simplicity, the following examples assume the man is the higher lifetime earner. (If the wife is the higher earner, just switch the wife and husband in the example.)
A woman can claim spousal benefits beginning when she is 62 as long as her husband has filed for his own benefits. But claiming this early will minimize her monthly benefit.To receive the most per month, she should wait until her full retirement age. Only then does she qualify for her maximum spousal benefit, which is 50% of her husband's FRA benefit.
An important point is that the husband's FRA benefit is the highest amount on which her 50% spousal benefit may be based. Therefore, even if he waits until age 70 to file for benefits (well past the current FRA shown in the table), she would not qualify for any more in spousal benefits.
Still, for most couples it nevertheless will be beneficial for the husband to wait until age 70 before claiming benefits. That's because when he dies, the surviving wife will start receiving his full benefit, which is important given women's typically longer life spans.
One of the many other claiming strategies that's worth mentioning is what's known as "file and suspend." In this scenario, the husband files for his benefits at his FRA but then immediately suspends those benefits. By filing for his benefits, his wife becomes eligible to receive spousal benefits. If she is at her FRA, that means she can receive half of his FRA monthly benefit. By suspending his benefits, he allows himself to continue earning credits toward the higher benefit he's eligible for at age 70. (Note: The Obama administration is trying to eliminate availability of the file-and-suspend strategy.)
Clearly, when and how you claim Social Security benefits is an important and complex process. Other factors may come into play as well, such as rules that apply in case of divorce, which are beyond the scope of this article.
A good first step in determining your optimal strategy is to try some of the free Social Security strategy calculators (T. Rowe Price, AARP, Analyze Now) and fee-based services (Social Security Solutions, Maximize My Social Security) that are available.
After exploring many options for my own situation, my husband and I are planning to follow a plan created by the Maximize My Social Security service. My husband will file and suspend at age 69, and I'll take spousal benefits at that time (I'm 18 months younger than he is). The following year, he'll begin taking his benefits. I'll switch to my benefits two years later at age 70. We will continue to evaluate this strategy yearly as our income and health situations change.
As a financial professional, I often speak with prospective clients who have already made ill-considered Social Security decisions that can't be undone. By the same token, when I tell current clients I want to analyze the upside of waiting to receive Social Security, they sometimes look at me as if I said the moon were made of green cheese! My prayer for you is that you'll take this guidance to heart, use the online tools available to you, and make this important decision with great wisdom and care.