Claiming Social Security prior to full retirement age (which falls between 66 and 67, depending on your year of birth) means slashing your monthly benefits for life. But in some cases, it does pay to file early.
In fact, you'll often hear that if you don't expect to live a long life, then it makes sense to sign up for Social Security at the earliest possible age of 62. Though doing so will slash your monthly benefit, there's a good chance you'll walk away with a higher lifetime benefit if your life expectancy isn't all that generous.
But while this specific strategy does work well for seniors who are single, it's more problematic for seniors who are married. Here's why.
Don't forget your spouse
The upside to being single as retirement nears is that you only have to think about your personal needs in the course of your planning. That means if you don't expect to live a long life -- say, because you have specific health issues or a family history of dying young -- then you may want to sign up for benefits at age 62.
But if you're married, claiming Social Security early and slashing your benefits in the process could put your spouse in a very uncomfortable financial position down the line. Once you pass away, your spouse will be entitled to survivors benefits from Social Security. Specifically, your spouse will be entitled to a benefit that equals the amount you collect each month. If you claim your benefits early and reduce them in the process, you'll leave your spouse with less income -- and more stress to grapple with.
In fact, cutting your benefits by filing early is an especially dangerous move if you and your spouse haven't managed to accumulate much in the way of retirement savings. If you don't have a strong nest egg for your spouse to fall back on in your absence, then slashing your monthly Social Security benefit -- and your spouse's benefit in the process -- could create a real cash crunch for the person you leave behind.
Of course, if you and your spouse do have a solid level of retirement savings, and your spouse plans to hold down a job during his or her senior years to stay occupied and generate income, then you may have more flexibility as to when you sign up for Social Security. But either way, it's important to think about your spouse's needs and strategize together before you rush to claim benefits.
Your spouse may, in fact, want you to file for Social Security early so you have more money to enjoy your lives together while you're still around, even if that means having less monthly income down the line. Or, your spouse might ask you to hold off on signing up. But if you don't have those conversations, you won't know what your spouse is thinking, and you'll be more likely to make a move that ultimately hurts the person you care about the most.