If you are retiring soon or have already done so, you're going to need to decide what to do about Social Security. You don't have to claim benefits just because you leave work. You can file for checks any time between age 62 and 70.

So, is it the right time for you to begin your benefits? Here's what you should consider to make this important choice. 

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When is your full retirement age, and how old are you now?

The most important thing to know before claiming Social Security is what your full retirement age (FRA) is and how your FRA compares to your current age. 

Your full retirement age is set by the Social Security Administration. Here's what yours is, based on when you were born:

  • It's 66 if you were born between 1943 and 1954.
  • It's 66 and two months if you were born in 1955.
  • It's 66 and four months if you were born in 1956.
  • It's 66 and six months if you were born in 1957.
  • It's 66 and eight months if you were born in 1958.
  • It's 66 and 10 months if you were born in 1959.
  • It's 67 if you were born in 1960 or later.

You can claim benefits at exactly this age to get your standard benefit, which is also called your primary insurance amount (PIA). Your PIA equals a percentage of average wages calculated by taking into account your 35 highest earning years. But most people do not claim benefits at exactly their FRA.

If you're thinking of claiming early, you should know early filing penalties will permanently reduce your standard benefit by 5/9 of 1% for up to 36 months. Beyond that, benefits are further reduced 5/12 of 1% per month. So for someone with a FRA of 67, the penalty would reduce their monthly benefit a maximum of 30%.

On the flip side, claiming after your FRA earns you delayed filing credits until age 70 that will permanently increase your benefit. Your check will go up 2/3 of 1% per month you delay beyond FRA, which adds up to an 8% annual benefits increase.

How much other savings do you have?

Social Security alone isn't going to be enough to support you, since benefits only replace around 40% of preretirement income. That means you need a plan with other sources of income before claiming. If you haven't calculated the income your savings or pension will provide to make sure you have enough funds to live on, you may want to put off starting Social Security.

Of course, it is possible to work while getting retirement benefits. But if you have not hit FRA yet, won't reach FRA at any time during the year, and work while getting benefits, you forfeit $1 in Social Security payments for every $2 earned above $19,560 in 2022. And if you will hit FRA at some time during the year but you work before it, you will lose $1 for every $3 earned above $51,960.

There's not much advantage to claiming benefits if you have to work to supplement them, and you earn enough to lose a good portion of that retirement income.

How is your health?

Your health matters a lot when deciding when to start your checks too. If you put off a claim for benefits, you give up checks you're entitled to in hopes of getting enough money later on to make up for the missed income.

But if you are not in good health, you do risk passing away before you collect many payments (or any at all). In those cases, filing early for Social Security makes sense to maximize the total lifetime value of your benefits.

How will your choice affect your spouse? 

Finally, you should think about your spouse. If you are the higher earner, your partner could keep getting your checks after you pass away in the form of survivor benefits. These might be higher than their own retirement benefits, but if you've claimed your benefits early and incurred the resulting penalties, this will leave your partner with less income each month.

By taking all these factors into account, you can decide whether you should file right away or put off your claim so you can increase your benefits and any survivor benefits your spouse may end up collecting as well.