In a sane world, people nearing retirement wouldn’t be forced to make a one-time, irreversible decision, which, if they blow it, can be a six-figure mistake. But the Social Security retirement program is maddeningly set up as some sort of retirement obstacle course that trips up too many.
Most retirees claim too early, locking in a lower benefit. An analysis by a wealth management firm estimates that, by not choosing the optimal age to start collecting Social Security retirement benefits, the average household loses out on $110,000 in potential benefits. High earners who fumble the decision can leave more than $200,000 on the table.
Put to the Social Security test
A recent quiz of people nearing retirement — ages 55 to 65 — confirms how hard it is to successfully navigate key decisions. More than half of participants failed to correctly answer at least eight of the 12 questions in MassMutual’s Social Security quiz. In school, that would mean a grade of D.
Below are some of the most consequential true/false questions.
— If I take retirement benefits before my full retirement age, they will be reduced for early filing. The good news is that 94% of people correctly answered true. But there’s confusion on when they hit full retirement age.
— Under current Social Security law, full retirement age is 65 no matter when you were born. That’s false, but one in four near-retirees got it wrong. Someone 65 in 2021 has an FRA of 66 and four months. Someone age 60 today has an FRA of 67. Claiming before those ages means a reduced benefit.
— Once I start collecting Social Security, my benefit payments will never change. Nearly 20% of near-retirees said this was true. They will be pleasantly surprised to learn that Social Security benefits are increased to keep pace with inflation.
— If I delay taking Social Security benefits past the age of 70, I will continue to get delayed retirement credit increases each year I wait. Nearly half of near-retirees incorrectly said this is true. It’s not. There are no additional delay benefits beyond waiting until age 70 to start.
— If I have a spouse and he or she passes away, I will receive both my full benefit and my deceased spouse’s full benefit. More than one in five near-retirees said this was true. It’s not. When a spouse passes away, the surviving spouse is entitled to collect one benefit — hers or her spouse’s. (Most surviving spouses are women.) That makes it so important for the highest-earning spouse to consider delaying until age 70, if possible, which locks in the highest possible benefit.
— As a divorced person, I might be able to collect Social Security benefits based on my ex-spouse’s earnings history. This is most definitely true, but nearly one-third of near-retirees got this wrong. If you were married for at least 10 years, and you haven’t remarried, you can choose to use your ex’s Social Security earnings record to determine your benefit. It doesn’t matter if your ex has remarried. All that matters is that you haven’t.
The complexity of the system is the real problem. But it’s what we’re stuck with.
If you’re in good health, the bottom line is that if you can wait until age 70 to start, that’s likely going to be the smartest move, given that a 65-year-old female today has a 50% probability of still being alive at 88 and for a 65-year-old man, there’s an even shot he will still be alive at 85.
That doesn’t mean you need to work until 70. A recent analysis ran the math and determined that for many households, using other savings (401(k), IRA) before age 70 as a “bridge” until you get to age 70 and start Social Security is better than starting Social Security earlier. For married households, it’s the high earner who should aim to delay to 70; it’s less crucial for the other spouse to wait that long.
Given what’s at stake, this is a decision well worth getting some professional input on. Plenty of financial planners will take on clients for a specific project, and charge either an hourly or flat fee. There are also online tools, such as Maximize My Social Security ($40 annual fee) that will run the numbers for you to help you make the best choice.