Most people look forward to receiving Social Security benefits for years, and when they finally become eligible to get them, they typically jump at the chance. There are many reasons so many Americans claim their Social Security benefits as early as age 62, ranging from layoffs and lack of employment opportunities to just wanting the money as soon as possible.

One reason many people cite for claiming Social Security is that their poor health means that they're not likely to live as long as an actuarial life expectancy table would suggest. For those who don't have any family members to care for, claiming early benefits in that situation makes perfect sense. But if you want to make sure that your spouse and anyone else eligible to claim benefits based on your work history gets the most they can, it could turn out that what looks smart from a selfish perspective can hurt your loved ones in the long run. Conversely, the best decision for your family might well lead to your receiving little or no benefits yourself.

Older couple holding hands in front of a blue backdrop with the frame of a Social Security card and a $1 bill.

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The trade-off with Social Security

The essential decision that people have to make with Social Security is whether they want smaller monthly payments sooner or larger payments later. The longer you delay between age 62 and 70 to claim your own retirement benefits, the bigger your monthly payments get. However, waiting obviously means getting nothing from Social Security for a period.

In general, the Social Security Administration calculates the appropriate reduction or addition to the base Social Security benefits you'd receive at full retirement age based on average life expectancy figures. In other words, if you live exactly to your life expectancy, then it should theoretically make no difference when you claim your benefits -- you'll end up in just about the same place.

The use of life expectancy as a guideline to help determine benefits means that a smart Social Security decision needs to take your health into account. For instance, if someone had just turned 62 and had a terminal health condition with a year to live, planning to wait before claiming Social Security wouldn't make much sense. It'd be better to get a smaller amount now than never to get any benefits at all. On the other hand, if your family has a long history of living a long time and you're still in perfect health, then waiting would make more sense for you than it would for a typical Social Security recipient.

Thinking about your family

Things get more complicated when you introduce family members into the mix. Spouses are typically entitled to receive survivor benefits after a worker passes away, and those benefits are based in part on the claiming decision that the worker made with retirement benefits.

If the worker waits until age 70 to claim Social Security, earning delayed retirement credits by doing so, then the amount the surviving spouse receives in survivor benefits also increases. But if the worker claimed early at 62, the survivor's amount will also be reduced.

In some cases, that can flip the correct claiming decision for the worker. If your spouse will rely on survivor benefits and you're confident that your spouse's health will lead to above-average life expectancy, then it could be smart to wait even if your own health is poor.

When being unselfish is a mistake

The key in determining whether it makes sense to ignore your own health condition and wait to claim Social Security for the sake of your spouse is knowing what your spouse would be entitled to receive. Although claiming early might cost your spouse in survivor benefits, it could allow your spouse to claim regular spousal benefits earlier as well, offsetting some of the negative long-term impact.

More importantly, if your spouse is already entitled to retirement benefits based on the spouse's own work history, then the impact of survivor benefits might not be big enough to make a difference. You're not entitled to receive the total of both your own retirement benefit and the survivor benefit -- instead, you only get the larger amount. That makes it useless for the worker to wait in many cases. For instance, if you'd receive $1,000 in early monthly benefits now or $1,750 if you wait until age 70, but your spouse will already get a $2,000 monthly retirement benefit, then it's not selfish at all to claim your own benefits early.

Think about everything

Social Security seems like a simple source of valuable retirement income, but making the most of it can be complicated. What all this boils down to is that the more your spouse is reliant on Social Security benefits based on your work record, the more important it is to take your spouse's health into account in deciding when to make your claim. Sometimes, the right choice for your whole family differs from what you'd do if you were completely on your own.

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