One positive aspect of Social Security is that you're allowed to sign up for benefits when you want to, albeit within an eight-year window. That gives you lots of choices in the context of retirement planning.
The earliest age at which you can claim benefits is 62. But for each year you file for benefits before full retirement age (FRA), your benefits get reduced. FRA begins at 66, 67, or somewhere in between, depending on your year of birth.
You're also allowed to delay benefits beyond FRA. For each year you do, up until age 70, your benefits will grow 8%.
There are plenty of good reasons to consider filing for Social Security before FRA. If your health is poor, for example, and you don't expect to live a very long life, then claiming benefits early makes sense. While you'll receive less money each month, you may wind up with a higher total Social Security payout in your lifetime.
But while claiming Social Security early could make sense if you're thinking only of yourself, if you're married, you may regret signing up for benefits early for one big reason.
Don't forget your spouse
You may make the decision to sign up for Social Security as early as possible because that's what's good for you. But before you go that route, it pays to consider how your choice might impact your spouse.
If your spouse is likely to outlive you for many years, and you were a much higher earner than your spouse, then your spouse may become reliant on survivors benefits once you pass away. Social Security will pay your surviving spouse the same monthly benefit you collect. So the higher it is, the more income you'll leave your spouse to receive on an ongoing basis.
That's why claiming benefits early is a move you might regret, even if it results in more Social Security income in your lifetime. If you're single, you should obviously do what's best for you. But if you're married, you'll need to talk things through with your spouse and make the right call for both of you.
Of course, if your spouse earned a high salary and is likely to snag a generous Social Security benefit based on their own earnings record, then you may be just fine to claim benefits when you want to, even if it's early. But be sure to account for your spouse's needs before making that choice.
Undoing a bad decision
What if you've already claimed benefits early and regret it now? You may be in luck.
You get one do-over in your lifetime to withdraw your Social Security application and repay the benefits you've received to date. Do so within a year of filing your claim, and you'll get a chance to sign up again at a later age, thereby snagging a higher benefit.
But if you haven't yet claimed Social Security, you have an opportunity to avoid that scenario in the first place -- and set your spouse up with a more robust income stream for life.