Applying for Social Security is something most people only do once. While you can change your mind if you regret making a claim too early, that’s hard for most people because you’ll have to pay back everything you’ve received from Social Security so far.
Instead of dealing with that, try to pick the right claim age from the get-go. And for that you need to be able to answer the following questions.
1. What is my full retirement age?
The Social Security Administration grants everyone a full retirement age (FRA) based on their year of birth. For today’s workers, it’s somewhere between 66 and 67. If you were born between 1943 and 1954, your FRA is 66. After that, the FRA increases by two months each year until it reaches 67 for those born in 1960 or later.
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Your FRA determines when you qualify for your full Social Security benefits. Claiming before this age lowers your monthly checks. For example, you will only get 70% of your full payout by check if you claim at 62 and your FRA is 75. If your FRA is 66, you will get 75% of your full benefit by check at 62.
Your FRA also determines the size of your maximum benefit. You qualify for this at 70 when you get 124% of your full benefit by check if your FRA is 67 or 132% if your FRA is 66.
To find out what your Social Security benefit will be based on your income to date, create a my Social Security account. There is a calculator on the site that can show you how much you will get at different starting ages.
2. How long do I expect to live?
Your life expectancy affects the number of years you are entitled to Social Security and, by extension, how much money you generally get from the program. It is impossible to know exactly how long you will live, but you should keep an estimate in mind when choosing your age for claiming Social Security.
If you expect to be in your 80s or older, deferring Social Security will likely result in a larger lifetime benefit. But if you have a short life expectancy due to a terminal illness or poor health habits, it may make more sense to apply earlier.
3. How does a claim affect other members of my household?
If you are married or have other dependents, your family members may also be eligible for Social Security benefits based on your work record or their own records. It makes sense to plan your claim strategy together to maximize your family benefit.
For example, if both spouses are eligible for Social Security and have earned similar amounts over their lifetimes, it is usually wise for both to defer benefits as long as possible if they are trying to get the most out of the program.
But if one person has earned significantly more than another, the lower earner may prefer to apply early. Their benefits can help defer the higher earners until they qualify for bigger checks. Then, when the higher earner signs up, the Social Security Administration will automatically switch the lower earner to a partner’s benefit if that’s worth more than what they’re already receiving.
Minor children or people with disabilities may also qualify for Social Security benefits based on your work record, but they can only claim it if you apply. So if you have other members of your household who qualify for benefits, you may want to apply earlier than you otherwise would to apply for them.
4. How will my claim age affect my finances?
If you’ve successfully answered these three questions, you should know at what age you get the most money. But sometimes waiting until that age to sign up isn’t always feasible. For example, if you think you’ll get the most money by delaying to age 70, but you can’t afford to fund your retirement until then, you may need to sign up for Social Security early.
If this is the case for you, that doesn’t mean you should sign up right away at age 62. You can try for a happy medium — maybe delaying it for a few months or years before signing up to give your checks a bit of a boost.
It doesn’t matter when you sign up, you’ll get Social Security checks for the rest of your life. But if your goal is to get as much money as possible, you need to consider the above factors. Use them as your guide and pick the claim age that makes the most sense for you right now, but don’t be afraid to adjust it over time if your plans change.
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