Filing for Social Security at the right time could help you make the most of your benefits and ensure that you don't encounter financial difficulties during retirement. If you claim Social Security at your full retirement age, you'll get the exact monthly benefit your earnings history entitles you to. That age is either 66, 67, or somewhere in between, depending on the year you were born.

You don't have to wait until full retirement age to claim benefits, though. You can file as early as age 62 and get your money much sooner, but if you do, those monthly payments will be slashed by 25% to 30%, depending on your full retirement age. There's also the option to delay benefits past full retirement age and grow them by 8% a year, up until age 70.

Smiling older man and woman embracing


Now if you're single, the decision of when to file for Social Security can boil down to your needs alone. If you're married, however, the stakes are a bit higher. That's because the choices you make regarding your benefits won't just impact you; they could also dictate how much Social Security income your spouse collects in retirement.

Social Security survivors benefits

If you pass away and leave a spouse behind, he or she will be entitled to survivors benefits from Social Security. Those benefits, paid on a monthly basis, will equal 100% of your benefit, as long as your spouse claims them at his or her full retirement age. Keep in mind that survivors benefits are available to widows once they reach age 60. But just as you'll reduce your own Social Security benefits by claiming them early, so too will your spouse lower his or her benefits by filing ahead of full retirement age.

Because the amount of money you collect each month from Social Security will determine what sort of income stream your spouse receives in your absence, it's crucial to evaluate the impact of claiming benefits early if you're thinking of going that route. Seniors are often advised to claim benefits early if they expect to pass away when they're relatively young. The logic is that while they'll get less money from Social Security on a monthly basis, they'll generally come out ahead on a lifetime basis if they don't live very long.

When you're single, that's a good guideline to follow. After all, if you expect to die in your early 70s, filing for benefits as early as possible absolutely makes sense. But if you're married, and you have a spouse who's expected to outlive you for many years, then filing for benefits early could limit that spouse's income and cause him or her a host of financial problems. This especially holds true if you and your spouse collectively don't have much in the way of savings, and expect to rely on Social Security as your primary source of retirement income.

Keep in mind that even if your spouse worked, and is entitled to Social Security benefits based on his or her earnings record, his or her survivors benefits might exceed the amount he or she would otherwise collect. This especially holds true if you were a much higher earner than your spouse. For example, your spouse might be eligible for a monthly benefit of $1,200 based on his or her work record. But if you start collecting $2,000 a month at full retirement age, and you pass away before your spouse, your spouse's benefits could get a big bump.

The point? Factor your spouse into your decision to claim Social Security. Otherwise, the person you love could wind up struggling for years to come.