The age at which you claim Social Security can make a huge difference in your financial health in retirement. Make the wrong choice, and you can make it a lot more difficult to get by financially, especially if you rely almost entirely on Social Security to cover your living expenses.

With longer life expectancies on average, women have the formidable challenge of having to prepare financially for an even longer period of retirement than men. About three-quarters of women take Social Security benefits early, as Motley Fool personal-finance analyst Maurie Backman recently explained. That can indeed be a mistake in some cases, because some women will receive lower benefits throughout their lives that could put them into financial straits later in life. In particular, women who can claim benefits only based on their own work histories have to think carefully before accepting lower payments for the rest of their lives.

Two people holding hands, against a backdrop of a Social Security card frame with the George Washington picture from the dollar bill in it.

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Yet some women are in a position in which claiming Social Security is the smartest thing they can do. In particular, for those who either are currently married to older spouses with equal or greater earnings or whose spouse has passed away, claiming their own retirement benefits early can lead to greater total benefits over the long run. The secret: Even though you'll take an initial hit by having to accept a lower monthly Social Security payment, the odds make it likely that you'll be able to get a larger survivor benefit later on when you need it the most.

Survivor benefits and you

To be clear, survivor benefits aren't just available for women. Spouses of any gender can claim survivor benefits when their spouses pass away. But within marriages between women and men, 80% of women outlive their spouses, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That makes survivor financial planning for women extremely important for most couples.

In general, the earlier you file for Social Security benefits, the smaller your monthly payments will be. For those who rely on Social Security for the bulk of their income in retirement, differences of even $100 or $200 per month can have a huge impact on quality of life or even being able to make it or not financially.

Yet when it comes to survivor benefits, Social Security offers an interesting choice. Even if your spouse has already passed away, you're allowed to claim your own retirement benefits separately from your survivor benefits. Moreover, the decision you make on when to claim your retirement benefits doesn't penalize you when you later decide to shift to the survivor benefits. By waiting, you can let the amount of survivor benefits you'll receive grow while still getting a smaller amount in the form of your retirement benefit.

How this can work

For example, take a situation in which you're turning 62 in 2018 and your spouse has passed away. Your work record would entitle you to Social Security benefits of $1,200 per month if you waited until your full retirement age of 66 and four months. If you claim those benefits now, then you'll get about $880 per month. Say your deceased spouse's primary insurance amount is $1,500 per month, reflecting somewhat higher earnings.

If you claim both retirement and survivor benefits now, then both will be reduced. You'll get $880 per month from your own retirement benefit, and an additional $220 per month in survivor benefits, for a total of $1,100. That's what you'll get monthly for the remainder of your life.

By contrast, if you wait until full retirement age to claim, then you'll get a total of $1,500 per month. $1,200 will come from your retirement benefit, and $300 to match the higher survivor benefit. The downside is that you have to wait more than four years to get that higher amount.

Yet there's a way to do better still. If you claim your retirement benefit now but wait until full retirement age to claim the survivor benefit, then you'll end up with money now and more money later. For four years and four months, you'll get just your $880 monthly retirement benefit. But when you claim your survivor benefit at full retirement age, you'll get the full $1,500 per month -- $880 from your reduced retirement, and the remaining $620 in survivor benefits. That higher payment will continue for the rest of your life.

You can see that there's a trade-off here. Under the first scenario, you got $1,100 instead of $880, getting $220 per month more for 52 months. That adds up to $11,400. Yet in exchange, you'll get $400 per month more for the rest of your life once you reach full retirement age. It takes less than two and a half years to make up that $11,400, giving you greater financial security from your late 60s on.

An uncertain future

It's undeniably morbid to do a financial analysis of Social Security benefits while your spouse is still living, but the general rule still holds true: If switching to higher survivor benefits later on will offset the penalty from taking your own retirement benefits early, then you can end up ahead by doing so. Moreover, if your spouse waits until beyond full retirement age to claim benefits, then your survivor benefits will eventually reflect extra delayed retirement credits that will further boost what you receive monthly.

Social Security strategies require a lot of thought, and simple rules of thumb can be misleading. While many women would be better off not claiming Social Security early, others are making exactly the right decision by doing so. Just be sure to take the time to figure out what the best answer is in your situation before making a choice that you could later regret.

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