Social Security provides thousands of dollars in vital income to a vast swath of the American population. Between disability benefits for those who become unable to work due to an illness or injury and retirement benefits for older Americans, Social Security counts tens of millions of recipients among its ranks.
One of the most vital decisions regarding Social Security is when you claim your retirement benefits. In general, most people can claim their benefits as early as 62. If you wait beyond that, though, you can often get larger monthly payments. Delayed retirement credits are available for retirement benefits if you wait beyond your full retirement age as late as age 70.
If you're looking to get the biggest monthly check from Social Security that's possible, then waiting until age 70 is often your best bet. However, there are a couple situations in which it pretty much never makes sense to wait for your 70th birthday to get your Social Security.
1. When your spousal benefits will be the primary income you get from Social Security
The key reason to wait until age 70 is to get the delayed retirement credits that the Social Security Administration offers. However, not all benefits are eligible to receive these delayed retirement credits.
In particular, among the most common types of benefits that aren't eligible for the age 70 boost are spousal benefits. If you're married and don't have a work history of your own, or if your earnings over the course of your career are far lower than your spouse's, then it's likely that most or all of what you get from Social Security will come in the form of spousal benefits.
It can pay to wait for a period of time after age 62 before claiming your spousal benefits from Social Security. You'll get maximum spousal benefits at your full retirement age, which currently varies from 66 to 67 years old depending on the year in which you were born. Wait beyond that, though, and you won't get any bigger of a check when you start.
That said, some spouses won't have a choice but to wait beyond full retirement age. Under current law, you're not eligible to receive spousal benefits until your spouse claims retirement benefits. If your relative ages are such that the higher-earning spouse won't claim until the lower-earning spouse is older, then there's nothing to be done.
2. When you can choose from your own retirement benefit or survivor benefits
Those whose spouses have passed away also have options that can give better results if you claim before reaching age 70. By claiming either your own retirement benefit or your survivor benefit first and then planning to switch to a larger benefit at age 70, you can get more than if you waited until age 70 for both.
Current law offers surviving spouses the ability to claim one benefit while leaving the other to grow. This used to be available to married couples as well with spousal benefits, but law changes in the 2010s took away this ability. Yet the change to Social Security law left survivor benefits untouched.
As an example, say your full retirement age is 67, your monthly survivor benefit would be $1,800, and what you'd be entitled to receive in retirement benefits at full retirement age would be $2,000 per month. If you claim both at 67, you'll get the greater of the two, or $2,000 per month. However, if you claim your survivor benefit at 67 and wait until age 70 to take your retirement benefit, you'll get $1,800 per month for three years and then $2,480 per month for the rest of your life. In that case, the break-even period is relatively short, as your survivor benefits by themselves give you almost the same amount your retirement benefit would.
Social Security is a great program, but it can be tricky to navigate. By being aware of tactics like this, you'll put yourself in the best possible position to get the most from Social Security.