Most retirees believe their only choices for Social Security are to file early or to file when they reach full retirement age. Furthermore, married couples make the mistake of only calculating benefits on each person’s personal life expectancy. If you are married, look at joint mortality. With a little planning, you can boost your benefits significantly.
Social Security options are complex for married couples. Each spouse qualifies for three different types of benefits. Option 1: They can file for their personal benefit based on their own record of earnings. Option 2: They may file for spousal benefits based on half of their spouse’s earnings. With each of these options, they have three choices: file early, file at full retirement age or delay filing and receive up to 132% of full retirement benefits.
Option 3 is for retirees who meet requirements for a survivor’s benefits after their spouse predeceases them, based on their spouse’s earnings record. Don’t overlook this survivor’s benefit when you are deciding when to file. Computing how long you must live to take advantage of late filing requires including the projection for survivor’s benefits and considering the likelihood that each spouse might be the first to die.
For any couple in a situation where one should take the other’s spousal benefits, joint longevity as well as the difference between their ages affects the filing options significantly. There may be many more years to collect survivor’s benefits than personal benefits. Because women typically live longer and are more likely to have earned lower personal benefits, many men delay their benefits until age 70. Their wives thus inherit a larger benefit to use through possibly long years as a widow, a wonderful way to protect a loved one from running out of money.
For example, consider Leland and Candy Rockefeller. Candy met Leland in her tai chi class at the country club. Leland’s wife had passed away two years earlier, and Candy was just beginning to think about marriage. They fell in love over a couple of bento boxes after class. She’d always wanted to see Tokyo, and he owned a penthouse suite on Shibuya Street. They honeymooned in the Far East.
Despite their age difference, they have been happily married for seven years. Leland is now 62 and considering filing for Social Security; Candy is 25 years younger. Second marriage has kept Leland in good shape, but the men in his family did not live to old age. He may not need the money either way, but he is tempted to take early benefits and get as much as possible while the system is still viable.
Candy, in contrast, has youth on her side. She enjoys excellent health and exercises regularly. And the women in her family have had impressively long lives.
When Leland dies, Candy can begin receiving a survivor’s benefit as earlier as age 60. If he files early, she will receive a monthly benefit equal to $1,661 in today’s dollars, but if Leland waits until age 70, she will receive a monthly benefit of $2,192. Her many years of receiving benefits far outweigh the possibility that Leland will die too young to enjoy his increased benefits. Clearly he should wait until age 70 before he files for Social Security.
Even if Leland dies at age 70 and does not receive a dime of benefits, so long as Candy lives past 76, it will have been worth it. Candy finds it enormously reassuring to know that even if she lives to be 100 she will have received $1,052,160, or 11% more benefits, because of Leland’s wisdom in waiting to file. And if Leland lives to an average life expectancy of 81 and Candy lives to age 84, which is typical for women in retirement, they will collect $182,664 more because of Leland’s delayed filing.
Healthy spouses with little earnings of their own should always consider encouraging their partners to delay filing for Social Security. Having little, if any, benefit accrued on their own work record, they will need to rely on their spousal and survivor’s income benefits. This is a situation that homemakers and younger wives share. Only in a situation where both the spouses have a shortened life expectancy does it benefit a couple to file early. Delaying your filing for Social Security also allows you to earn additional income and save money without penalizing your benefits.
Another reason to delay filing is to gain a measure of longevity insurance. Dying young never jeopardizes a retirement plan financially. It’s only when you live a long time that you risk running out of money. Filing late increases the money you will receive. And if you live a long life, the benefit of a later filing increases the longer you live.
Anyone who delays filing for Social Security should also consider another choice: filing, repaying and then refiling. This option is both riskier and more complicated, but it can boost your benefit by an additional 3%. We discuss this scenario in next week’s column.
Too many impatient retirees take Social Security as soon as possible and miss out on thousands of dollars. Run the numbers and consider all your options before you make the decision when to file.
Photo by Mathias Reed on Unsplash