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When Should You Start Claiming Social Security Benefits?

Figuring out at what age you should start claiming Social Security benefits is a tricky decision, and it's one that cannot be undone. Should you, for instance, start claiming Social Security benefits at the early age of 62 and trade-off higher payments for a certain payment? Or, on the other hand, should you wait until the age of retirement, putting off monthly social security payments in exchange for receiving larger monthly checks when you do decide to collect? This choice is a hard one to make, and it is important to make the right decision the first time because you can't go back and change once you've made your choice.

What follows is a guide that will help you determine at what age you should start collecting Social Security benefits.

Three Options -- Early, Full and Late Retirement

Under the Social Security laws, you can begin to receive your retirement payments once you hit the age of 62 (early retirement), at full retirement age (varies by year you were born), or at late retirement age (any age after your full retirement age). As the laws are currently set up, your full retirement age will be somewhere between 65 and 67 years of age, and is based upon the year you were born. To find out your retirement age, consult the following chart, which can also be found at the Social Security Administration's Website (www.socialsecurity.gov) (valid as of January 2010).


Year of Birth

Full Retirement Age

1937 and Earlier

65

1938

65 and two months

1939

65 and four months

1940

65 and six months

1941

65 and eight months

1942

65 and ten months

1943-1954

66

1955

66 and two months

1956

66 and four months

1957

66 and six months

1958

66 and eight months

1959

66 and ten months

1960 and later

67

(If born on January 1st, use the previous year's full retirement age)

Claiming before your Full Retirement Age

If you choose to claim your Social Security retirement benefits before you reach your full retirement age, you will receive an amount less than you would if you waited until your full retirement age. This amount less will be proportional to the number of months left until your full retirement age (meaning, you will get a larger social security check if you start collecting at 64 instead of 62). Typically, if you retire at 62 (the earliest possible age), you will receive between 20 and 30 percent less than you would if you had waited until your full retirement age.

Claiming at Full Retirement Age

If you start claiming Social Security benefits at your full retirement age, you will receive your "full" retirement benefits.

Claiming at Late Retirement Age

The Social Security Administration gives an incentive for people to work past their full retirement age by providing larger checks. Between your full retirement age (see chart above), and the age of 70, your Social Security benefits will increase between 3 and 8 percent each year you delay your retirement. For example, for anyone born 1943 and later, their retirement benefits will increase by 8% for each year they delay until the age of 70. So, someone born in 1944 who delays their retirement benefits until the age of 70, will get 132% of their full retirement benefit in each check.

To put these factors into perspective, it is helpful to look at an example. Say, for instance, that you have made an average of $75,000 a year. If you take early retirement at the age of 62, you will get approximately $16,000 annually from Social Security. If you retired at full retirement age of 66, you would get approximately $21,000 annually. If you retired at the age of 70, you would get approximately $29,000 per year, which is quite a bit more than you would get if you took early retirement.

Making These Calculations for Your Situation

The Social Security Administration offers free online benefits calculators that you can use to determine the different kinds of benefits you could expect if you chose to retire early, full or late. These calculators are valuable planning tools that can help guide your decision of when to claim your retirement benefits.

The Social Security Administration now offers retirement statements that provide personalized indications of the benefits you could expect at 62, full retirement age and 70. You can contact your Social Security Administration by calling, visiting an office, or browsing their website (www.ssa.gov) to request this statement.

What Retirement Age Is Best for You?

As we have already seen, there are three general options when it comes to claiming social security benefits. You can either take them early, at full retirement age, or at late retirement age. If you like to follow trends, then you will probably claim your benefits early, at the age of 62, as a majority of people do. This happens because people either need the money, or are scared that Social Security will collapse before they have the chance to claim their retirement benefits.

However, early retirement may not be the best option for you. The following questions may help guide you to the best choice for your situation:

Are You Currently Working?

There are some jobs where workers have a hard time working past the age of 62. Typically, these jobs involve manual labor, such as construction or warehouse jobs. If you may be unable to handle your job past the age of 62, then you should consider claiming social security benefits at the earliest possible time.

However, if you are still physically and mentally able to work, and you enjoy it, you may want to consider keeping your job and opting for higher retirement payments when it comes time to collect from social security. Your Social Security retirement benefit payments are calculated from the average of your top 35 years of earning. Note that once you start collecting benefits, any continuing contributions from your employment will not count towards recalculating your benefit amount. This is important to understand if you intend to continue working while collecting benefits.

In addition, if you are still working, you will lose one dollar in retirement benefits for each two dollars you make over the earnings limit set by the Social Security Administration (if you claim early social security benefits). However, if you wait until at least full retirement age to claim your retirement benefits, there is no earnings limit, so your benefits will not be decreased, no matter how high your wages.

Family Health History

If your family has a medical condition that you have inherited which may shorten your lifespan, then may be no point in waiting until full retirement age to collect your benefits. In this case, you should opt to receive your benefits at 62.

Break Even Point

If you have some guess at your lifespan, you may be able to calculate your "break even" point. This point is calculated based upon retirement benefits collected at age 62, at full retirement age, and at 70. For example, the break even point between collecting at 62 and at full retirement age is the point at which you will have received the same amount of benefits from each. If you plan on living past your break even point, then it would be wise for you to collect at your full retirement age as you will make more money in the long run than if you collect early.

Do You Have a Spouse?

If you are married, and either you or your spouse made significantly more income than the other over the course of your lives, then you may want to have the lower-earning spouse collect at 62, and have the higher earning one wait until full retirement age, or later. If the higher earning spouse passes first, then the surviving spouse can collect that spouse's full benefit.

What Do You Need the Money For?

This is a key question in making your decision of when to claim social security benefits. If you need the money at 62 to pay for the necessities of life (food, water, shelter), then you should probably plan on claiming social security benefits as early as possible. If you are want to collect early just so you can make additions to your home, or take a vacation, then it may not make sense to do so. Waiting until full retirement age may do more for you financially in the long run.

Thinking About Others

If you have dependents or a spouse that may survive you, you should consider waiting until at least full retirement age to start claiming social security benefits. Their claim to your benefits may be reduced if you decide to claim them at 62.

You can learn a lot about your options when it comes to social security benefits by visiting the website of the Social Security Administration and looking through their helpful charts, calculators and documents.

Ask a Lawyer About When to Start Claiming Social Security

It's vitally important to have your finances in order before you retire, which typically includes Social Security benefits in addition to pensions and retirement savings. But figuring out the best way to maximize these benefits can get quite confusing. Get some peace of mind by speaking with a Social Security attorney in your area.

Next Steps
Contact a qualified social security lawyer to assist in your
social security disability or retirement benefits issue.
(e.g., Chicago, IL or 60611)

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