The Social Security web page that lets you apply for retirement benefits looks simple enough. It is broken down into three seemingly straightforward sections: “Getting Ready,” “Apply & Complete” and “Follow Up.” But once you get into the guts of the application process, you could find yourself lost in a maze of different choices that potentially number in the tens of millions, according to one source.
In a column last decade for PBS, author and Boston University economics professor Laurence Kotlikoff wrote about a calculation he and one of his engineers did which determined that “for an age-62 couple there are over 100 million combinations of months” for each of two spouses to take retirement benefits and spousal benefits.
“For some couples who are very different in age, survivor benefits also come into play,” Kotlikoff added. “In that case, the number of combinations can exceed 10 billion!”
The purpose of his calculation was to determine which combination can help married couples maximize their benefits. One reason there are so many different combinations is that Social Security retirement benefits can be claimed as early as age 62 and as late as you want to claim them, though there’s no benefit to delaying them past age 70.
Given the time frame, there is a seemingly endless combination of months when one spouse claims benefits and another claims them. There are also “start-stop-start” strategies involving claiming benefits, suspending them and claiming them again, although this loophole was scaled back by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015.
Obviously, you don’t have to sort through 100 million combinations to come up with a strategy to get the most money from Social Security. But you do want to ensure you time your retirement right — especially for married couples, who have more to consider when claiming benefits than individuals.
“When you have a couple, it gets complicated,” AARP Financial Ambassador Jean Chatzky, founder and CEO of HerMoney.com, said in an article on the AARP site. “You’ve got a higher earner, you’ve got a lower earner, typically. You’ve got people who may be able to claim on each other’s records. And that means that there are hundreds, if not more, of ways that you could decide to claim.”
Financial and retirement planners usually advise delaying your Social Security claim as long as possible. This is the best way to maximize benefits — especially for couples whose estimated benefits aren’t too far apart.
“One of the biggest mistakes that I see is when both [spouses] try to take Social Security payments early,” Malik Lee, founder and managing principal of Felton & Peel Wealth Management in Atlanta, told AARP.
One risk of mutually filing early for lesser benefits is that couples will outlive their money and be deprived of the “inflation hedge” that comes with Social Security’s yearly cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), according to AARP.
As Vanguard noted in a blog, coordinating your benefits with your spouse’s benefits can help you both get the most out of your payments. In some cases it might make financial sense for both spouses to claim on the same spouse’s earnings record, while in other cases you might want to use a “split strategy” that involves having the higher earner wait longer to collect.
For example, if one spouse’s benefit estimates are significantly higher, the lower-earning spouse can begin collecting while the higher-earning spouse allows delayed benefit credits to give their own benefit a boost. Delaying the higher earning spouse’s benefits could also eventually increase the other spouse’s survivors benefits.
If you do plan to stagger your start dates, Vanguard recommends delaying the higher earner’s start date beyond their full retirement age. By waiting, the higher earner’s payments will increase by a higher percentage.
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