Social Security can be a complicated and confusing topic, and many Americans do not fully understand how the program works.

That's concerning, however, especially considering nearly a quarter of married couples and close to half of unmarried beneficiaries rely on their benefits for at least 90% of their income in retirement, according to the Social Security Administration. If your benefits are going to be your primary source of income during your senior years, it's crucial to ensure you're making the right decisions to maximize that money.

As you're nearing retirement, it's important to at least understand the basics of Social Security. But new research shows that very few near-retirees know as much as they should about their benefits.

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Soon-to-be retirees are struggling with Social Security

In a recent report from MassMutual, researchers surveyed Americans age 55 to 65 who had not started claiming Social Security benefits yet. The researchers asked these participants a series of 12 true-false questions regarding Social Security.

The results show that many Americans don't have a solid understanding of how the program works. Only 3% of the survey participants answered all 12 questions correctly. One-third failed the quiz, and an additional 19% score a D grade.

Some questions were easier than others, and the majority of respondents answered these questions correctly. For example, 94% of participants correctly answered "true" when asked if their benefits would be reduced by claiming before their full retirement age. Eighty-six percent of respondents were also aware that working while collecting benefits could temporarily reduce their benefit amount.

There were other areas of the quiz, however, where people tended to struggle. For instance, only 28% of respondents knew whether you need to be a U.S. citizen in order to collect benefits. (You don't.) In addition, just 53% of people understood that delaying claiming benefits past age 70 would not result in bigger checks. While delaying benefits past your full retirement age will result in more money each month, you won't receive any additional delayed retirement credits by waiting until after age 70 to file for benefits.

A few of the other topics some survey participants struggled with were spousal and divorce benefits, full retirement age, and the future of Social Security. For example, only around 60% of respondents were aware that retirees could face benefit cuts by 2035, and just 69% of people know that your full retirement age varies based on the year you were born.

The importance of understanding your benefits

For many people, Social Security benefits are an essential part of retirement -- especially if your retirement fund isn't as strong as you'd like. If you're expecting to rely on your benefits for at least a portion of your retirement income, it's important to make sure you understand how your benefits are calculated.

First, consider the age you want to begin claiming benefits. If you claim before your full retirement age (FRA) -- which is either age 66, 66 and a few months, or 67, depending on the year you were born -- your benefits will be reduced by up to 30%. But if you wait beyond your FRA to claim, you'll receive your full benefit amount plus a bonus each month. For example, if your FRA is 67 and you claim at 70, you'll receive your full benefit amount as well as an additional 24% each month.

Another thing to keep in mind is that once you begin claiming, your benefit amount is usually permanent (save for annual cost-of-living adjustments). You do have one chance to change your mind, but you have to withdraw your application within 12 months of filing, and you'll also need to repay all the benefits you've already received. That means it's extra important to decide carefully when you want to claim benefits, because you'll likely be stuck with your decision for the rest of your life.

It's also important to remember that you might qualify for benefits based on someone else's work record. If you're married, for example, you may be entitled to collect spousal benefits. Even if you're divorced, you might be eligible for divorce benefits as long as the marriage lasted at least 10 years and you're not currently married. By understanding all the types of benefits you're entitled to, you can maximize your monthly checks.

Before you start claiming Social Security benefits, it's a good idea to make sure you know what you're signing up for. Consider how the age you claim will affect your benefit amount, and make sure you file for all the types of benefits you're eligible to receive. The more you know about Social Security, the better decisions you can make.