Claiming Social Security is pretty easy on the face of it. Once you're eligible, you just fill out an application, provide your banking information, and the money shows up in your account each month.
That's really all you need to do to claim checks, but if you want the largest checks possible, there are some other things you must do, as well as a few mistakes you want to avoid. Here are three things you can't afford to do if you're trying to maximize your monthly benefit.
1. Not checking your earnings record
Your Social Security benefit is based on how much you pay in Social Security taxes throughout your career. The government tracks this in your earnings record. You can view yours by creating a my Social Security account. After you've answered the identity verification questions, you'll be able to view the record of your earnings history for every year you've worked.
The Social Security Administration gets its data from the IRS, so it's usually accurate, but errors can happen if you or your employer make an error on your tax paperwork. The government might also confuse you with someone else who has the same name. The most damaging errors result in no reported income for a year you know you worked. This can permanently shrink your Social Security checks. That's why you ought to double-check the government's numbers every year.
Fortunately, you can correct any errors you find by submitting a Request for Correction of Earnings Record to the Social Security Administration, along with any documentation showing your real earnings for the year. The government will review this and make updates if necessary.
One thing to note for high earners is that you don't always pay Social Security taxes on all your income. In 2022, for example, you only pay Social Security taxes on the first $147,000 you earn. If you make more than this, your earnings record will only show $147,000 for this year, and that won't be an error.
2. Claiming right away without understanding the implications of your decision
You become eligible for Social Security at age 62, but not everyone realizes that signing up then permanently shrinks your checks. You must wait until your full retirement age (FRA) to sign up if you want the full benefit you've earned based on your work history. This is between age 66 and 67 for today's workers.
You get more checks when you claim under your FRA, but each one will be up to 25% smaller if your FRA is 66, or 30% smaller if your FRA is 67. Whether claiming early is a smart move for you depends in part on how long you live. Those who don't expect to live past their 70s typically get more from the program by signing up before their FRA. But those who live into their 80s or beyond can shortchange themselves this way.
Every month you delay Social Security increases your checks a little until age 70. That's when you reach your maximum benefit of 124% of your full benefit per check if your FRA is 67, or 132% if your FRA is 66. Delaying benefits could lead to a larger lifetime benefit, but only you can decide if you're comfortable funding retirement on your own until 70.
3. Not discussing your claiming strategy with your family
Single adults can make Social Security decisions based solely on what's best for them, but married couples and seniors with dependents need to think about how their decision will affect all members of their household.
Spouses of qualifying workers can claim Social Security benefits on their own work records, if they qualify, or they can receive spousal benefits on their partner's work record. Spousal benefits are worth up to half of the worker's benefit at their FRA, but a spouse can't claim this until the worker signs up for Social Security.
Similarly, minor children, and adult children who were permanently disabled before age 22, could also qualify for Social Security benefits based on their parent's work history. But like spouses claiming on their partner's work record, children can't claim these benefits until the worker signs up.
If any of these things apply to you, it could make sense to sign up earlier than you otherwise would to enable your other household members to claim benefits. Talk through all your options with everyone affected and decide when each person will sign up for Social Security.
Taking the steps above is a great way to maximize your Social Security benefit, but don't just do them once and forget about it. You should review your earnings record every year and reevaluate your claiming strategy at the same time. Your plans for retirement could change over time, and your Social Security plans should adjust accordingly.