Social Security is a monthly benefit paid to retirees, their spouses and/or dependent children from the Social Security trust fund that is funded every year by payroll taxes paid by all income earners. If you’ve worked for 10 years or more and earned a minimum of 40 work credits, you are vested in the Social Security system and are eligible to receive benefits as soon as age 62, whether you’re married, single, divorced, or a widow, regardless of whether your spouse collects their own Social Security benefits or not. If you have worked a shorter amount of time, you may still be able to collect some Social Security benefits through a spousal benefit, or if you are the surviving dependent parent (62 years of age or older) of an adult child entitled to benefits.
The retirement benefits you will receive is based on a percentage of your average monthly wage using a 35-year base of earnings. If you don’t have 35 years of earnings, the Social Security system will substitute “zero” years to reach the 35-year base. If something were to happen to you and you become disabled before your full retirement age, you might qualify for Social Security disability benefits if you’ve worked and paid Social Security taxes in five of the ten years preceding the disability. If you also receive a pension from a job where you did not pay Social Security taxes like civil service jobs or positions in the education system, your Social Security benefit might be reduced.
The size of your basic monthly Social Security benefits will depend on a variety of factors. Social Security will refer to your monthly benefits as your primary insurance amount or PIA. Your PIA can range from the number of years you’ve worked to your average earnings over your 35 highest wage earning years to when you plan on starting to collect your checks.
If you qualify you can choose to start to claim your spousal benefit (generally 50% of the Social Security recipient’s full benefit) at your full retirement age, which then delays your own benefit and builds up delayed retirement credits in your PIA based on your work history. This allows you to switch over to your own benefit for a higher amount later. Who doesn’t want a raise at age 70?
Couples can also use the “file and suspend” strategy to boost their benefits from Social Security. When you’ve reached full retirement age, you may claim your Social Security benefit and then immediately suspend payments. Your spouse is now able to claim their spousal benefit based on your Social Security credits. Since you are not drawing a personal benefit from the system your own future benefit will continue to increase.
If you are divorced (as long as you were married for at least 10 years), you are still eligible to receive the spousal benefits from your ex’s Social Security. At age 62 you can start to claim benefits from Social Security. The amount you will be eligible to receive will be based on your ex’s earnings record. If you remarry, you will no longer be allowed to continue collecting benefits on your former spouses’ earnings unless your current marriage ends. You would then want to draw from the ex with the largest Social Security benefit.
We all know the system is strained and the question is often asked if Social Security benefits will be there for you when you need them. With more Baby Boomers starting to draw money from the system, reports forecast the Social Security trust fund running out of money in 2037. Congress will likely take steps to keep the program solvent. It is possible that today’s younger generations will have to be older to qualify for Social Security full retirement benefits while not receiving as much as today’s retirees.
Social Security, while a valuable benefit for retirees, does not provide the level of financial security that most American’s respect in their later years. It is a part of a comprehensive retirement plan, but not the whole. The key is to start to save for the kind of future you want to have in retirement and that begins with a plan on how to get there. If you would like to enjoy the time after your working life you must plan for it today while you are still earning and can affect meaningful change.
The goal is to maximize the income you will receive from Social Security, but the answer for you will depend on your age, current income, marital status, spouse’s income, and the age disparity between you and your spouse. The best answer for you will be based on how much steady income is needed in your unique situation, and how much income from other sources you are currently earning such as pensions or retirement plans. It could also depend on your Medicare and Medicaid eligibility.
With all the complexities to Social Security planning, there is no substitute for meeting with a trusted financial advisor. We suggest you meet with a financial advisor to discuss the best time for you to begin collecting your monthly Social Security checks. Nothing can keep you from getting your own Social Security, but making sure you are taking full advantage of the Social Security benefits you are entitled to involves an understanding of the system and careful planning. Social Security is best understood in the context of all of your other retirement and late-career planning.