The Social Security system was intended to be easily accessible, but like so many of our government organizations, it has become a nightmare of complexity. Rather than try and understand the system, many simply retire at 62 and lose out on valuable benefits because they retired too early.
Recently, thanks to the bankruptcy of one regional hospital and another local company's early retirement incentive offers, I have been fielding a lot of questions on the subject.
For most people, it makes more financial sense to wait until you reach full retirement age (FRA) which is 66 (for those who were born between 1943 and 1954). This is especially so in low interest rate environments like the one we have now. The simple reason is that for every year you delay filing, your monthly benefit will increase between 6 and 8%. That is far higher than the present rate of interest, so you are getting paid to wait.
Life is too short to wait, say some, especially if death comes at an early age. You can't predict when you will die, but if you are healthy and longevity is a trait that runs in your family, chances are you will increase your lifetime benefits by waiting. Single women will benefit more than single men simply because women tend to live an average of five years longer than men.
Married couples stand to benefit more than singles by waiting as well. As a 62-year-old spouse, you can choose to either file for social security based on your own earnings (if you are working) or on a spousal benefit, based on your spouse's income. However, to receive the spousal benefit your partner must have already retired. The spousal benefit is up to 50% of the earner's benefit. If you both wait until FRA or later you will both collect higher benefits.
As a couple, there are all sorts of strategies that could work for you. The lower earning spouse, for example, could take benefits as early as age 62 while the higher earning spouse waits until age 70 to file. You will need to crunch the numbers (or have a financial planner do it) to discover what's best for you.
Remember too, that if you file for Social Security benefits before your FRA and continue to work you need to be aware of how much you earn. If your earnings exceed a certain limit, some of your benefits will be withheld until you reach your FRA. As an example, if you file at age 62, $1 in benefits will be withheld for every $2 you earn above $15,120. If you make more than $40,080, then the government withholds $1 for every $3 you earn above the limit.
If you are a two-earner couple, you have to think about your tax situation. Up to 85% of your Social Security income could be taxed if your modified adjusted gross income reaches a certain level. You may be in the unenviable situation where one spouse retires only to see her hard-earned benefits taxed away by the higher income bracket of the spouse.
In certain situations you may have no choice but to file at 62. You may lose your job and you don't have enough savings to cover the bare necessities, then you may need that Social Security income just to live. For most, early retirement is really just an emotional urge to get out of a bad or boring situation as early as possible. If so, think again. You may have spent the good part of your life at that company and working a few years more won't kill you, but it may make the difference between a great retirement and one that you might regret.
Bill Schmick is registered as an investment advisor representative and portfolio manager with Berkshire Money Management.