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3 Reasons to Claim Social Security Early (and 3 Reasons to Wait Until 70)

Delaying provides a bigger monthly payment, but health, financial or family issues could force your hand


spinner image There are pros and cons to claiming Social Security at 62 or waiting until age 70.

When it comes to deciding when to claim Social Security, most people say they want the most money they can get.

AARP recently surveyed nearly 3,400 U.S. adults ages 25 to 66 for a study on Social Security knowledge. According to the November 2023 report, 71 percent said maximizing retirement income is “very important” to their benefit decision.

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But when it actually comes to claiming Social Security, what people do is often different.

Less than 10 percent of the approximately 3.4 million people who started retirement benefits in 2022 were at least 70 years old, the age at which you can get your highest monthly payment, according to Social Security Administration (SSA) data. The average claiming age was about 65, and nearly a quarter of claimants were 62, the earliest age of eligibility.

That’s down considerably from 20 years earlier, when more than half of people starting Social Security did so at 62, despite receiving a sharply reduced monthly payment. But it’s still a lot of people potentially leaving a lot of money on the table: Claiming at 70 results in a benefit as much as 77 percent bigger than what you’d get at 62.

‘They still want to take it’

Why do so many people settle for so much less every month?

“I think most people take Social Security because they think they want it, they earned it, they deserve it,” says Alexander Joyce, president and CEO of ReJoyce Financial in Carmel, Indiana.

“At our practice, we deal with pretty high-net-worth people, and even those high-net-worth people are struggling to make Social Security decisions at 62,” Joyce says. Even if they don’t need the benefit income at that point to retire comfortably, he adds, “they still want to take it.”

Financial planners typically recommend delaying your claim as long as possible to secure the biggest possible monthly benefit. Social Security bases your payment on your lifetime earnings history, but you only get 100 percent of the calculated amount if you claim it at full retirement age, or FRA (currently between 66 and 67, depending on your year of birth). Claim earlier and you get a lesser payment, for life. Wait past FRA and your benefit is permanently bumped up.

Still, deciding when to start Social Security doesn’t always come down to when you’ll nail down the biggest monthly check. Health, family and financial issues can affect the calculus of when to claim.

“Don't take Social Security in a vacuum,” Joyce says. “You have to plan for this thing.”

Here are three circumstances planners say may justify taking a benefit hit to get your Social Security income flowing sooner, and three when it makes more sense to wait as long as you can. These are general guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules. Try AARP's Social Security calculator to get estimates based on claiming benefits at different ages, or, if you can, consult a financial adviser about your options.

Claim early: Your health is poor

At its most basic, the choice of when to claim boils down to “would you rather take less for longer or more for shorter?” Joyce says. At a certain point, generally around age 80, the total benefits you collect from starting a bigger payment later will catch up and pass your total from starting sooner but getting less per month.

But that break-even point matters only if you live long enough to reach it. If you don’t expect to — due to a chronic medical condition, for example — you’ll likely get more out of Social Security, cumulatively, by taking it early.

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“If health is poor, an early claim can be the appropriate choice for both [providing an] income and to help offset higher medical outlays,” says Heather Schreiber, founder of HLS Retirement Consulting in Canton, Georgia, and the writer of Heather Schreiber's Social Security Advisor, a newsletter for financial professionals.

That’s especially true for a single person “who doesn’t have to be concerned about the impact of an early claim to a surviving spouse,” she says (more on that below).

Claim late: You expect a long retirement

If, on the other hand, you’re in good health and have a family history of longevity, it makes sense to wait.

According to Census Bureau data, the average life expectancy in the U.S. for someone who reaches age 62 is another 21 years for a man, 24 years for a woman. By 2050, those averages are projected to increase by about 2½ years each.

“For many, Social Security is the only ‘pension-like’ income source” — a guaranteed payment every month — “they may expect to collect for as long as they live,” Schreiber says. “For an individual who expects to live beyond age 82 or 83, waiting to as late as age 70 will produce more cumulative lifetime benefits than had the claimant filed at age 62.”

Claim early: You want (or need) to stop working

A May 2023 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that 1 in 2 U.S. workers over 50 have physically taxing jobs, and slightly more than half report working in hazardous or unhealthy conditions. Such circumstances may leave workers with little choice but to retire early and claim Social Security to pay the bills.

“For someone who is no longer willing or able to work with limited sources of retirement savings, it simply may be a necessary replacement for earnings,” Schreiber says.

If you do have a 401(k) or individual retirement account (IRA) but worry about draining it to live the life you want in retirement, Social Security could help you stretch it — especially in a down market, when account withdrawals combined with low investment returns can put a double whammy on your savings.

“What I generally see people doing is taking a withdrawal percentage from their personal assets to make a lifestyle whole in order to defer Social Security,” Joyce says. “I'm not saying that’s bad or good, but I want people to understand where the market is before they start taking distributions from their assets in order to fixate on making Social Security deferred.”

Claim late: You have other income

That could be a healthy nest egg from which you can prudently make withdrawals. It could be a pension, an annuity, a rental property, or earnings from a side hustle or part-time job. If these sources provide a money stream you can live on in your first years of retirement, planners advise holding off on Social Security to maximize your guaranteed income in the later years.

Ditto if you hit your 60s with a job you like and can keep doing. In this situation, you have twin incentives to defer Social Security. First, it’s income to support you while your prospective benefit grows. Second, you avoid Social Security’s earnings test.

This rule reduces Social Security payments for beneficiaries who claim early but continue to work and earn over a certain threshold. Once you reach full retirement age, though, there’s no such withholding no matter how much you earn from work, and you can claim 100 percent (or more) of your calculated benefit amount.

Claim early: Maximize family benefits

For a married person, choosing when to claim retirement benefits isn’t an entirely personal decision. Your spouse’s work history, or lack thereof, may present strategic options to increase household benefits, some of which lend themselves to early claiming.

Say your mate is in line to get a far lesser retirement benefit than you, due to lower wages or long stretches off work for childcare, caregiving or health issues. In this situation, they may be eligible to receive a spousal benefit on your earnings record. Social Security would pay them between a third and a half of your benefit amount, but only once you’ve claimed it.

“By a strategic decision to have the higher wage earner in the married couple file as late as age 70, the lower wage earner might consider filing early to at least get some Social Security dollars flowing,” Schreiber says. Then, when the higher earner files, the lower earner could switch from their retirement benefit to a higher spousal benefit and collect it for the rest of their life.

Or, suppose you can no longer work, and your partner worked so little that they don’t qualify for a retirement benefit of their own. Claiming early would mean accepting a lower payment for yourself, but it could trigger spousal benefits for your partner, providing two incomes at a time when you need it.

Claim late: Maximize survivor benefits

When one spouse dies, the other may become eligible to receive the deceased’s entire Social Security payment if it exceeds their own. And unlike benefits for a living spouse, which are fixed as a percentage of the higher earner’s full-retirement-age benefit amount, payments to a surviving spouse will be lower or higher if the late partner started Social Security early or late.

“If there is a wide disparity in income, waiting as long as possible will preserve the highest survivor benefit to the survivor,” Schreiber says. “Waiting to [claim] as late as age 70 maximizes the survivor benefit to the widow/widower.”

So, claiming later doesn’t just increase your benefit in life — it could provide your spouse with a bigger payment, and greater financial security, after you’re gone. 

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