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Social Secuirty Mailbox

When Should I Start Benefits?

It's a tough question, with a different answer for each person

En español | Q: What's the best age to begin my Social Security benefits?

A: You've asked a simple question. But sometimes simple questions have complicated answers — especially where Social Security is concerned. In this case, the answer is complicated because every person can have a different "best age" for starting benefits.

Remember that the earliest you can start Social Security retirement benefits is age 62. You can also start it at any time up to age 70. At 62, your payments will be reduced. If you start at full retirement age, now 66 for many people, you'll get your full payment, based on your highest 35 years of earnings. At 70, you'll get your full payment plus a 32 percent bonus for waiting.

See also: AARP Social Security Calculator

Concerning your start date, there are several factors that you should consider:

  • Your current age, your occupation, your number of years working in Social Security-covered employment and your desire and physical ability to keep working. Generally speaking, the longer you work, the more financially stable your retirement is going to be.

  • Your financial situation. Do you need additional income at 62 or can you wait a few years in order to increase the size of your Social Security payment?

  • Your health and the health history of your family. This boils down to whether you can expect to live into your eighties, nineties or even beyond. When you postpone benefits to increase the size of your check, you're betting on your ability to reach an advanced age. It's possible to lose that bet. For instance, if a worker decides to delay benefits until 70 but dies at 67, he or she would have lost years of potential Social Security payments.

The Social Security folks point out that if you live to an average age for a person in your age category, you'll receive about the same total amount of money no matter hold old you are when you begin. You can't control how long you'll live, but you can control when you get your money and how big the payments will be. For instance, if you decide that at age 70 you'll need the largest check possible to pay your retirement expenses, then it would make sense to hold off on benefits until 70.

There are also some special benefit strategies to consider. For example, a married man can file for benefits at 66, and then suspend payment of that money until age 70. That enables his 66-year-old wife to file for a spousal benefit, which will give her an amount equal to 50 percent of her husband's basic benefit. The same would hold true for a woman filing and suspending at 66. Her husband could get the spousal benefit. Social Security is gender-neutral.

Stan Hinden, a former columnist for the Washington Post, wrote How to Retire Happy: The 12 Most Important Decisions You Must Make Before You Retire. Have a question for the Social Security Mailbox? Check out the archive. If you don't find your answer there, send a query.

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