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In the first part of this series, we talked about some basics of Social Security. Now we want to go through the seemingly difficult process of determining when to claim.  If you understand the basic rules and a few key points, making this determination may not be as difficult as you once thought.

So when should you apply?

The “when to apply” question is very complex and really requires a customized analysis. But here are a few points to remember:

  • If you apply early, your benefit starts out at some fraction of your PIA — 75%, 80%, or whatever — and remains at that percentage for the rest of your life. It does not go up to 100% when you reach full retirement age.
  • COLAs magnify the impact of early or delayed claiming because the annual cost-of-living adjustment is applied to either the lower or higher amount. This causes the disparity to increase with each passing year.
  • The “when to apply” question impacts survivor benefits as well. If the higher-earning spouse maximizes his or her benefit by delaying to age 70, this higher benefit will transfer over to the lower-earning spouse at death.
  • And, of course, you will need to take into account your health status, life expectancy, income needs, and overall retirement plans when deciding when to claim Social Security benefits.

Strategy and Special Situations

Claiming your social security benefits is not something that should be taken lightly and definitely should not be a guess. Make sure you work with a professional that understands your entire financial picture and uses social security specific financial tools to run projections. Once you claim you are committing to receive that amount for life (with COLA adjustments), so you want to make sure you’re making the right decision.

There are ways to strategize for increased benefits in a spousal situation where one spouse may claim and the other waits for their benefit to increase. Traditional spousal benefit equals 50% of the primary worker’s PIA if the spouse applies for it at full retirement age and the worker has already filed for his or her own benefit. The spouse must be at least 62 and if they file before their FRA the benefit will reduce. In this scenario, the spouse will not earn delayed credits, so the most they will ever get is 50%. One can only claim a spousal benefit if it’s greater than the benefit available to them personally. The most important takeaway is that spouses must coordinate their benefits to make sure they receive the maximum payout.

Death

When one spouse dies, if his or her benefit is higher than their spouses, the living spouse assumes the higher benefit and their own will stop. This is another reason the delayed credits can make a large impact. Depending on life expectancy and the age of the spouses, the living spouse will receive a higher benefit for the rest of his or her life.

Divorce

A divorced person may be able to get spousal benefits based on an ex-spouse’s work record.

There are a few more things to know about divorced-spouse benefits.

First, more than one ex-spouse can receive benefits on the same worker’s record. So if your ex-spouse has remarried a couple of times, all exes can claim divorced-spouse benefits, as long as the marriages lasted at least 10 years. The benefits paid to one ex-spouse do not affect those paid to the worker, the current spouse, or the other ex-spouses.

You do not need to know your ex-spouse’s whereabouts, only enough identifying information that the Social Security people can look up his records. You’ll also need to provide documentation showing the dates of the marriage and divorce. If you are receiving divorced-spouse benefits and you remarry, your divorced-spouse benefits will stop. However, you may then be eligible for spousal benefits based on your new spouse’s work record. Or you can switch to your own benefit if you also qualify for Social Security.

Survivor benefit

The marriage must have lasted at least 9 months, except in case of an accident.

To start benefits, the survivor must be at least 60, or 50 if disabled. However, if the widow or widower applies before full retirement age, the benefit will be reduced, as it is for regular retirement benefits. Some of the same principles that go into deciding when to apply for regular retirement benefits also apply to survivor benefits.

If you remarry before age 60, you will not be able to receive a survivor benefit based on your previous spouse’s earnings record, unless your remarriage ends. We’ve seen cases where a widow is contemplating remarriage in her late 50s. In those cases, we recommend a long engagement in order not to lose the survivor benefits from her first husband. If she remarries after age 60 she will still be able to get those survivor benefits.

Divorced-spouse survivor benefits are available if the marriage lasted at least 10 years.

There are other things to know about SS, but in an effort to keep this post as short as possible we will stop here with a few last words of advice.

  1. You can apply for SS before full retirement age and continue to work.
  2. Your benefits may be subject to tax! Do not make the mistake of thinking all SS benefits are tax-free. But, there are ways to minimize taxes on your benefit.
  3. Make sure you go to www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount and set up an account online. You’ll be able to see your earnings history and benefit estimates.

If you are asking yourself any of the following questions:

  • When should I apply for Social Security?
  • What if I want to keep working?
  • What if I’ve already applied?
  • How much will my benefits be?
  • How can I coordinate spousal benefits?
  • What’s the best long-term strategy for my situation?
  • What should I do next?

We would be glad to help you consider each of these questions individually and help you come up with a plan for your personal situation. 

 

Kevin Stoddard is a LPL Financial Advisor with Stoddard Financial in Quincy, Massachusetts. Stoddard helps clients throughout New England to identify, plan, and execute strategies designed for securing their desired financial future. With their Financial Wellness @ Work program, they engage, educate, and empower employees by helping them to understand and appreciate the value of their benefits package.

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.