Social Security benefits become available starting at age 62. Despite the fact that it's often a better financial move to wait a while to file for them, many people do begin getting their checks ASAP. This can make sense for lots of reasons, including if you need the benefits to enable your departure from the workforce.
But there are also circumstances when claiming early could end up being a choice you really regret. Here are three potential situations in which this could be your fate.
1. If you run out of money late in life
Many sources of retirement income can run dry. If you're working part-time or full-time after retiring, you could lose this job or become unable to perform it as you age. If you're relying on savings, your nest egg could be depleted, leaving you with little or no income.
This can't happen with Social Security, though. These retirement benefits are guaranteed to last for as long as you are alive, and because of cost-of-living adjustments, they are somewhat protected against the impact inflation can have. Social Security is also a very popular program and any attempts to reform it and cut senior benefits are unlikely to be successful.
If you run out of other income later in life and are forced to live on Social Security benefits, you may really regret an early claim. Even in a best-case scenario when you maximize this income with delayed filing, it's difficult to live on alone. If you've shrunk your checks substantially, you'll be faced with even more financial hardship.
2. If you struggle to afford your costs
As mentioned above, Social Security doesn't really provide enough to live on comfortably without supplementary income. It's not designed to, as benefits are meant to replace 40% of what you were earning prior to retirement.
If you've claimed Social Security benefits early and you're struggling to pay the bills, you may really regret your choice. A larger benefit would have given you a little more wiggle room if you had waited, so living within your means might have been easier.
Further, if you've claimed Social Security benefits before your full retirement age, then you could end up forfeiting some of your benefits temporarily if you're forced back to work to help you cover expenses. Missing out on entire checks defeats the point of your early Social Security claim, even if you do end up getting your benefit recalculated later to replace this lost money.
3. If you leave your spouse in the lurch
When you claim your Social Security benefits early, this doesn't just impact you. Your husband or wife's survivor benefits could also shrink.
If you were the higher earner, survivor benefits may provide more income for your widow(er) to live on after you pass. That's because your partner gets to keep the higher of the two benefits either spouse was receiving.
By filing early and reducing your own checks, you could be dooming your surviving spouse to a lifetime of financial struggles once your spouse has to rely on just one Social Security check that ends up being much smaller than it could have been.
In any of these three situations, a delayed claim would likely have left you much better off. So be sure to consider the long-term implications of your decision to file for Social Security benefits early and accept a reduced benefit for the rest of your life -- and potentially your spouse's life as well.