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Don't Claim Social Security Benefits Until You Can Answer These 3 Questions

By Maurie Backman - Apr 7, 2021 at 5:49AM

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You can't afford to botch your Social Security filing. Answering these questions will help you avoid that fate.

Social Security will probably play an important role in your retirement. Even if you have some outside savings, you'll still need those benefits to cover essentials, like housing and healthcare.

It's for this reason that you must choose your filing age carefully. Specifically, you must make sure you can answer these critical questions before moving forward.

1. What's my full retirement age?

Your full retirement age, or FRA for short, is when you're entitled to claim your full monthly Social Security benefit based on your personal earnings history. FRA is not universal. Rather, it hinges on your year of birth, as per the following table:

Year of Birth

Full Retirement Age




66 and 2 months


66 and 4 months


66 and 6 months


66 and 8 months


66 and 10 months

1960 or later


Data source: Social Security Administration.

You don't have to claim Social Security at your precise FRA. In fact, you're allowed to sign up for benefits as early as age 62.

But if you don't wait until FRA to file, your monthly benefit will be reduced on a permanent basis, so it's important to understand when you're entitled to receive that income in full.

Older man and woman at table with notebook, documents, calculator, and laptop

Image source: Getty Images.

2. Have I worked a full 35 years?

Your monthly Social Security benefit is based on your earnings during your 35 highest-paid years on the job. But if you don't work a full 35 years, you'll have a zero factored in for each year there's no income for you on file.

Before you sign up for benefits, you should know how many years of work you have under your belt, as that could influence your decision to file for Social Security immediately or wait.

Say you've only put in 34 years in the workforce and have the option to continue at your job. You may want to stay put, work another year, and then sign up for benefits at a higher payout once those extra 12 months of earnings are factored into the equation.

3. Am I likely to outlive my spouse by many years?

If you're single, you only have to consider your own financial needs when signing up for Social Security. But if you have a much younger spouse, consider that person's needs before claiming your benefits.

Once you pass away, your surviving spouse will be entitled to collect the equivalent of your monthly benefit. If you file early and slash that monthly benefit in the process, you'll leave your spouse with a lower income stream for the rest of his or her life. But if you hold off on filing until at least FRA, your spouse will have a more generous benefit to look forward to. You can also delay your filing beyond FRA and boost your monthly benefit in the process, making life much easier for your spouse down the line.

Claiming Social Security is a big decision -- so don't botch it. Instead, make sure that before you file, you know your FRA, you're confident in your work history, and you've thought about how your choices might impact your spouse in the long run. Taking the time to work through these questions could spare you from making a horrible mistake you'll regret for many years.

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