By Jonathan S. Kuttin
As more baby boomers reach retirement age, they’re realizing the valuable role Social Security will play as a source of lifetime income. Claiming Social Security benefits can be far more complex than you may realize. Here are seven essential things about Social Security to understand as you determine how Social Security will fit into your overall retirement income strategy:
You can start claiming benefits any time between ages 62 and 70: When you’re working and paying Social Security taxes (via your paycheck), you earn credit toward your Social Security retirement benefits. To qualify for these benefits, you need to contribute at least 40 credits to the system, which is typically 10 working years (although it does vary). Alternatively, if you have never worked and you’re married to someone who qualifies, you may earn a spousal benefit. When claiming your own benefit, you can begin receiving Social Security at age 62 or delay receiving Social Security up to your 70th birthday.
Full retirement age is changing: The age to qualify for a “full” retirement benefit from Social Security used to be 65. Now it is up to 66 (for those born between 1943 and 1954). It increases by two months per year for those born between 1955 and 1959. For those born in 1960 or later, full retirement age is currently defined as 67.
The longer you wait, the larger your benefit: The amount of your benefit depends on the age you choose to first begin receiving Social Security. For example, if you collect beginning at 62 and your full retirement age is 66, your benefit will be about 25 percent lower. On the flip side, your benefit will increase by about 8 percent each year you delay taking Social Security after your full retirement age up to your 70th birthday.
Spousal benefits give married couples extra flexibility: If both spouses worked, they each can receive benefits based on their own earnings history. However, a lower earning spouse can choose to base a benefit on the higher earning spouse’s income. A spousal benefit equals 50 percent of the other spouse’s benefit. Note that if you claim a spousal benefit before full retirement age, it will be reduced. The maximum spousal benefit you can collect is by taking the benefit at your full retirement age (based on the benefit your spouse would earn at his or her full retirement age).
You also can choose to collect a spousal benefit initially and delay taking your own benefit, allowing your benefit amount to increase. Then you can claim your benefit when you turn 70.
There may be a long-term advantage if a higher earning spouse delays Social Security: If the higher earning spouse is older (or has more health concerns that could affect longevity), it may make sense to delay taking Social Security as long as possible up to age 70. When the spouse with the higher benefit dies, the surviving spouse will collect the higher benefit that was earned by the deceased spouse. The higher the deceased spouse’s benefit, the larger the monthly check for the surviving spouse.
Claiming benefits early while still working can reduce your benefit: If you begin claiming Social Security before your full retirement age but continue to earn income, your Social Security benefit could be reduced. If your earnings are above a certain level ($15,720 in 2015), your Social Security checks will be reduced by $1 for every $2 you earned in income above that threshold. In the year you reach full retirement age, that threshold amount changes. $1 is deducted for every $3 earned above $41,880 up to the month you reach full retirement age. Once you reach full retirement age, you can earn as much income as you want with no reduction in your Social Security benefits.
Benefits you earn may be subject to tax: According to the Social Security Administration, about one-third of people who receive Social Security have to pay income tax on their benefits. You may want to consult a tax professional to determine what impacts this will have on your overall benefits.
These essential points are just a beginning. There’s much more to consider. Consult with your financial advisor, tax professional, your local Social Security office and/or Social Security’s website, www.ssa.gov, to find out more before you make your final decisions about when to first claim Social Security benefits.
Jonathan S. Kuttin is a private wealth advisor with Kuttin-Metis Wealth Management, a private advisory practice of Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc. in Melville, NY. He specializes in fee-based financial planning and asset management strategies and has been in practice for 19 years.