The age when you file for Social Security affects the amount of your check: The earlier you claim, the smaller your monthly benefit, while waiting means a higher benefit but fewer months or years of money. 

There are pros and cons either way, so it can be confusing to figure out the best age to start your benefits. There is one situation, however, when you'll often want to start getting your money ASAP: When you don't think you'll live very long. 

Older woman looking at financial paperwork with calculator.

Image source: Getty Images.

Why does claiming early make sense if you suspect you'll have a short life?

The Social Security system is designed to try to ensure that the age when you start collecting your benefits doesn't matter. The idea is that you'll break even regardless of when you file: as early as possible at 62, or at 70 when you stop getting any further benefit increases for waiting. 

That's why monthly benefits are reduced if you file before full retirement age and increased if you wait longer.

But the Social Security Administration can't predict when you will pass away. Actuarial tables and average life expectancies were used to determine how much the early filing penalty should be and how much delayed retirement credits are worth. 

If you don't reach that projected life expectancy, you may never break even if you wait to start benefits. In fact, it can take more than a decade before the higher monthly checks you get later in life make up for the months or years of income you missed by waiting. 

And unless you beat your projected life expectancy, you won't benefit from delaying the start of your benefits. That's because you won't end up with more money in the end unless you outlive your breakeven point.

If your health is poor or you have a long family history of serious health issues, it may not make sense to wait and gamble on living longer than you're projected to. 

There's still a situation where it may make sense to wait

Although claiming Social Security at 62 can make sense if you aren't confident in your longevity, this may not be the smartest move if you have a lower-earning spouse. 

Your spouse will be entitled to survivors benefits when you pass on. The amount of these benefits is based both on when your spouse claims as well as the size of your checks before you passed away. If you claim at 62 and lower your benefit amount, your survivors benefits will be lower, too. 

You don't want to leave your spouse in the lurch. So even if you don't think you'll live long enough to break even if you wait for a higher benefit, you may want to delay claiming so your spouse has a better quality of life after you're gone. 

Consider the big picture when you make your decision

Your health issues and the legacy you'll leave to your spouse are important when deciding if you should claim Social Security early.

But unless your spouse is depending on you, you likely don't want to wait to start your benefits if you don't think you'll live long enough to break even.