When Should You Start Social Security Benefits?

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When should you elect to receive Social Security benefits – at age 62, full retirement age (which is gradually increasing from age 65 to age 67), or age 70? The decision will permanently affect your Social Security benefits. Start at age 62, and your benefits will be permanently reduced by 20.8% to 30%, depending on your year of birth. Wait until age 70, and your benefits will increase by 3.5% to 8% annually, depending on your year of birth.

Since Social Security benefits probably won’t be sufficient to maintain your current standard of living, first decide whether you have sufficient retirement resources even to consider retiring at age 62. If that is not an issue, keep in mind that it will take approximately 12 years for someone electing benefits at age 65 to receive the same total benefits as someone electing reduced benefits at age 62. It takes approximately 11 to 14 years for someone electing increased benefits at age 70 to receive the same total benefits as someone electing benefits at full retirement age. You may want to calculate precise numbers for your situation since your full retirement age and the percentage reduction in benefits at age 62 will impact your answer.

For most individuals, the long payback period may make it worthwhile to start benefits at age 62. And in fact, more than 60% of retirees elect for benefits before age 65, while less than 2% wait until age 70 (Source: U.S. News & World Report, June 3, 2002). But there are a couple of situations where you might want to wait until full retirement age.

If you plan to continue working, consider delaying benefits. Individuals who have attained full retirement age can earn any amount of wages without losing any Social Security benefits. However, between the ages of 62 and 65, you lose $1 of benefits for every $2 of earnings over $11,520 in 2003. Between the ages of 65 and your full retirement age, you lose $1 in benefits for every $3 of earnings over $30,720 in 2003. Individuals earning substantially more than these limits will probably want to wait to start Social Security benefits.

If your spouse is significantly younger and is counting on your benefits, you may also want to delay benefits. While you are alive, your spouse is entitled to the larger of 100% of his/her benefit based on his/her earnings or 50% of your benefit at full retirement age. However, if you elect benefits before the full retirement age, your spouse’s benefits will be reduced by a higher percentage than your benefits were reduced, provided he/she obtains benefits based on your earnings. If you delay benefits past full retirement age, you receive increased benefits, but your spouse’s benefits remain the same, provided he/she obtains benefits based on your earnings.

After your death, your spouse’s benefits are based on your benefits and the age he/she elects to receive benefits. He/she receives 100% of your benefit, provided your spouse is over the full retirement age. If he/she is younger than full retirement age, your spouse receives between 71.5% and 100% of those benefits. Thus, the larger your benefit is, the larger your spouse’s benefit will be after your death.

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