Q. My wife has worked all her life. But at 61, she's not planning on working anymore. Would it make any difference in the Social Security benefits she receives if she collects at 62, or waits until she's 66?
A. Yes, it would make a pretty big difference. By starting retirement benefits at 62, the earliest possible age, your wife would get smaller payments each month but would get them for a longer period of time. If she waited until her full retirement age of 66, she would get larger monthly payments but for a shorter period of time.
For example, if your wife were entitled to $1,000 a month on her own work record at full retirement age, starting the checks at 62 would reduce them to $750, or 25 percent less. The longer she waits, the smaller the reduction. If she waited until 63 to apply, the cut would be only 20 percent.
Social Security says it calculates the reductions so that, regardless of when benefits are started, people will collect on average about the same total amount over the remaining years of their lives.
If your wife does begin early, she'll be pretty much stuck for life with the lower amount. The only way to raise it would be for her to go back to work before full retirement age and make more than an earnings ceiling, $14,160 a year for 2012. That would trigger further benefit reductions, but once she reached 66, the ceiling would no longer apply to her and her benefit would be recalculated upward from its original amount.
It's also worth remembering that if your wife puts off benefits beyond her full retirement age, she would be eligible for what Social Security calls Delayed Retirement Credits. Between age 66 and 70, these would add 8 percent a year to that hypothetical $1,000 full benefit, a total of 32 percent.
You and your wife should make a careful decision on when to start, considering such factors as your current and likely future financial situation, the status of your health and how long you're likely to live.
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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