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Single people often think that Social Security claiming strategies aren’t for them, and it’s true that married people have more filing options. But anyone, including singles, can benefit from smart planning around when to file for benefits.
For example, financial advisers generally recommend putting off Social Security as long as possible because benefit amounts increase for each month you delay filing between ages 62 and 70.
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But unmarried people “have the biggest incentive to wait till age 70 to collect the highest annual benefit,” says Laurence Kotlikoff, a professor of economics at Boston University and president of Maximize My Social Security, which makes software that helps people compare claiming strategies.
“Single people face greater financial longevity risk,” Kotlikoff says. “They can’t rely on their spouse to help if they outlive their money. There may also be few if any children to pitch in. This makes waiting to collect the highest Social Security benefit — a benefit that lasts till we pass — even more important.”
Someone born in 1960 who claims retirement benefits at the minimum age of 62 is eligible to receive 70 percent of their basic benefit — the full amount calculated from their lifetime earnings history. At their full retirement age (FRA) of 67, they’d get 100 percent of that basic benefit. At 70, they’d be eligible for 124 percent.
Put another way, if that person qualifies to receive $1,800 a month from Social Security at age 67, their benefit would be $1,260 if they claimed upon turning 62 this year. By waiting eight years, they’d boost that to $2,232 a month — and that’s without accounting for Social Security’s annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), which boosts benefits in tandem with inflation. Those reductions, or additions, are locked in for life.
Delay might not be a viable option if, for example, you need your benefit in your early 60s to make ends meet — and singles are significantly more likely than married people to live in poverty, according to Census Bureau data. Claiming early might also make sense if you don’t expect to live to 70, or much past it, due to your health or family history.
But “unless you have a major life-shortening health condition, there is a huge payoff from waiting till 70 to collect your largest possible retirement benefit,” Kotlikoff says.
Options for survivors, divorced singles
Individuals who are single due to divorce or a spouse’s death also have options to claim potentially bigger benefits.
If you are widowed, you might qualify for a survivor benefit of 71.5 to 100 percent of your late spouse’s (or former spouse’s) Social Security benefit. If you also qualify for a retirement benefit of your own, you may be able to maximize your Social Security income by claiming one before the other. (You can’t get both your own benefit and a survivor benefit at once; if you claim both, Social Security will pay whichever is higher.)