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If You Can't Answer These 3 Questions, You Can't File for Social Security

By Maurie Backman – Mar 30, 2019 at 7:33AM

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Before you claim benefits, be sure to do your homework.

Many older workers count down the days till they're able to sign up for Social Security. If you're getting close to filing for benefits, you're probably eager to get your hands on the money you're entitled to. But before you do, make sure you know how to answer these key questions.

1. What's my full retirement age?

Your Social Security benefits are calculated based on your 35 highest-paid working years, but the age at which you first file for them will also impact how much money you get on a monthly basis. If you file at your full retirement age, or FRA, you'll get the precise monthly benefit your earnings record entitles you to. Here's what that age looks like, depending on your year of birth:

Year of Birth

Full Retirement Age

1943-1954

66

1955

66 and 2 months

1956

66 and 4 months

1957

66 and 6 months

1958

66 and 8 months

1959

66 and 10 months

1960

67

DATA SOURCE: SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION.

Now, you certainly don't have to file for benefits at FRA. You're allowed to start collecting them as early as age 62 and as late as age 70. (In fact, you're technically not required to file at 70, but there's no financial incentive to delay past that point.) If you do file at any point before FRA, however, you'll face a reduction in benefits that will remain in effect for the rest of your life unless you manage to withdraw your application within a year and repay the money you received in benefits. On the other hand, if you delay benefits past FRA, you'll boost them by 8% a year up until age 70.

Smiling senior man in apron at a kitchen counter.

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

Therefore, don't even consider signing up for Social Security until you know what your FRA is. Otherwise, you won't understand the financial impact of your decision.

2. Is my earnings record correct?

Since Social Security benefits are earnings-based, it's crucial that the Social Security Administration (SSA) have correct information on file about your income history. If it doesn't, you could end up losing out on income as a senior.

Imagine you earned $80,000 in 2016, only for some odd reason, the SSA is showing no income for you that year. If that's the case, that missing $80,000 could result in a lower monthly benefit. That's why you must examine your earnings statements annually and make sure they're correct. You can access them by creating an account on the SSA's website if you don't receive them by mail, which won't happen if you're under 60. If you do spot errors, report them to the SSA and aim to get them corrected before your benefits start.

3. Have I discussed filing with my spouse?

If you're single, you only have to consider your own needs when filing for Social Security. But if you have a spouse to worry about, you'll need to think about how your decisions impact your life partner. For one thing, if your spouse didn't work, he or she is entitled to spousal benefits that could equal up to 50% of your benefits at full retirement age. Therefore, if you file early, you won't just reduce your own benefits, but your spouse's as well. And that could be a problem if your spouse is much younger than you, or if you expect your spouse to outlive you in retirement.

Even if your spouse did work and is entitled to benefits of his or her own, it pays to develop a joint filing strategy that allows you both to maximize the Social Security income you're entitled to. Therefore, you must sit down with your spouse and sync up before signing up for benefits yourself.

Social Security could end up providing a substantial portion of your retirement income, so it's critical to make the most of your benefits. Make sure you can answer these important questions before you file to avoid losing out on money you can't afford to give up.

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