Q: I turn 66 this year which makes me eligible for my full Social Security retirement benefit. Some people tell me I should take my Social Security right away and others say I should wait until I’m 70. What are your thoughts? And how do I apply for Social Security?
A: There are several factors you should consider as you think about applying for Social Security retirement benefits. These include your age, your income situation, and your life expectancy. The right decision for you will depend on how all these factors come together in your unique situation. Weighing all these factors can be tricky so you may want to enlist the help of a knowledgeable financial advisor.
Your Social Security benefit is based on something called your full retirement age, or FRA. Social Security full retirement age is defined by statute as the age at which you can claim your full retirement benefit. For those born between 1943 and 1954, your FRA is 66. For those born in 1955 or later, your FRA will be between 66 and 67, depending on your birth year. If you file for retirement benefits before your FRA, you will lose benefits. For example, if you apply at age 62 (the earliest you can start receiving Social Security retirement benefits), your monthly benefit will be 30 percent less than your full retirement benefit. On the other hand, if you wait until age 70, your monthly benefit will be increased by 32 percent.
The longer you expect to live, the more beneficial it will be for you to delay your Social Security until age 70. Of course, nobody knows how long they are going to live, but improvements in our day-to-day standard of living and the quality of modern medical care mean that people are generally living longer now than ever before. Unless someone has known life-limiting health challenges, I always encourage financial planning clients to be generous when they estimate their longevity. Of course, delaying Social Security only works if you have sufficient income outside of Social Security to support your desired standard of living. A financial plan can help you see how all your sources of retirement income will work together to support your desired lifestyle in retirement.
If you are married, you should also consider spousal benefits as you do your Social Security planning. Someone who is at least 62 years old and whose spouse is eligible for Social Security retirement benefits can receive a benefit equal to half of the worker's benefit amount. Spouses who are eligible for their own Social Security retirement benefits may choose to receive the higher of their own benefit or one half of their spouse’s benefit. Finally, if a spouse dies and was receiving Social Security retirement benefits, the surviving spouse may be eligible to receive survivor benefits equal to the deceased worker's benefit amount when the surviving spouse reaches age 60 or older.
One brief side note: If a divorced couple was married for at least 10 years, the divorced spouse may be eligible to receive benefits based on the ex-spouse's Social Security record. This benefit is available to the divorced spouse when they reach age 62 or older.
You can get an estimate of your Social Security retirement benefits based on your age and your earnings history at the Social Security Administration’s website, ssa.gov. When you first land on the website, it will ask you to create an account by entering your email address. You will then get an email that will confirm your email address and lead you through the rest of the set-up process. Once you establish your login you will have access to your benefit estimate, some basic planning tools, and links to other information about Social Security.
Applying for Social Security may sound daunting, but it is really quite simple. A good place to start is the ssa.gov website. For more personalized help, you can call the Social Security Administration at 1-800-772-1213 or visit the local Social Security office at 928 East Blanco Road, Suite #155 in Salinas.
Steven C. Merrell MBA, CFP®, AIF® is a Partner at Monterey Private Wealth, Inc., an independent wealth management firm in Monterey. He welcomes questions you may have concerning investments, taxes, retirement, or estate planning. Send your questions to: Steve Merrell, 2340 Garden Road Suite 202, Monterey, CA 93940 or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.