Social Security can be complicated, and most Americans don't fully understand how it works. In fact, a whopping 91% of those 50 or older don't know what factors determine the maximum Social Security benefit an individual can receive, according to a survey from the insurance and financial services company Nationwide.
Although you don't need to know every detail about Social Security, it's crucial to at least understand the basics to ensure you're maximizing your benefits. Here are a few simple rules.
1. The age you claim impacts your benefit amount
One factor that significantly affects how much you receive each month is the age when you start claiming benefits. You can begin at age 62, but you won't receive the full amount you're entitled to each month unless you claim at your full retirement age (FRA) -- which is 67 for those born in 1960 or later, or either 66 or 66 and a few months for those born before 1960.
For every month you claim before your FRA, your benefits will be reduced slightly. If your FRA is 67 and you claim at 62, your benefits will shrink by 30%. However, if you wait until after your FRA to file for benefits, you'll receive bigger checks -- if you have a FRA of 67 and claim at 70, you'll receive your full benefit amount plus a 24% bonus each month. Although you can claim at any age after 62, the longest you can wait and receive a bonus each month is 70. You can even wait past 70, but there's no financial incentive to do so.
There's no right or wrong answer for what age is the best to file for benefits. If you have little to nothing saved for retirement and you expect to rely on your benefits for the majority of your income, delaying benefits to collect those bigger checks might be a good idea. But if you have health issues and don't expect to spend decades in retirement, it might not make financial sense to put off claiming benefits when you may not have as much time to spend that money. So collecting as early as you can may be the best decision.
2. You can increase your benefits by working longer
Benefits are based on your earnings record over your lifetime, so by extending your career by a few years, you can potentially increase the size of your monthly checks.
To calculate your basic benefit amount (what you'll receive by claiming at your FRA), the Social Security Administration looks at the 35 highest-earning years of your career. Those figures are averaged and then adjusted for inflation, and the result is your benefit amount.
If you work fewer than 35 years, that lowers your basic benefit amount. But if you work for more than 35 years, the SSA only counts your highest-earning years. It's likely that you had a few lower-paying years early in your career, so by working a little longer now, you can replace some of those years with more recent, higher-earning years. That will increase your average, boosting your basic benefit.
3. There are several different types of Social Security benefits
Most people are familiar with the standard retirement benefit, which you're eligible to collect if you have worked and paid Social Security taxes for at least 10 years. But there are several other types of Social Security benefits (such as spousal benefits, divorce benefits, and survivors benefits) that you may also be entitled to.
In general, if your spouse or former spouse receives more than you in retirement benefits, you may be eligible to collect benefits based on your spouse's work record. That means even if you've never worked a day in your life, you may still be able to receive monthly Social Security checks. If you are eligible for benefits based on your own work record, you may still be entitled to some extra cash each month. The SSA will generally pay your benefit amount first, then if you're eligible to receive extra money based on a spouse's or former spouse's work record, you could receive a little more each month.
There are some requirements you'll need to meet before you can claim additional Social Security benefits. For example, if you're filing for divorce benefits, the marriage must have lasted at least 10 years, and you cannot currently be married. Or if you're a widow or widower, you generally have to be at least 60 years old to claim survivors benefits. The SSA typically won't notify you if you're eligible for these types of benefits, so do your research to see if you're entitled to some extra cash.
Social Security may be a significant source of income in retirement, so understand what types of benefits you're entitled to, and how they're calculated, to make the most of your monthly checks.