Source: Social Security Administration.

One of the most confusing aspects of Social Security is when the smartest time is to claim it. For women, who on average live longer than men, the lifetime benefits that Social Security provides can be especially important to their financial survival. But with some concerned that women are making bad choices regarding Social Security, how exactly should women decide when to start taking their benefits?

A recent survey from Nationwide Financial noted that the vast majority of women take their Social Security benefits early. More than 80% of all women started receiving Social Security before they reached full retirement age, with only 15% waiting that long and just 3% delaying their benefits beyond full retirement age.

The survey strongly suggested that waiting was a mistake, noting that those "who don't maximize their Social Security benefits can miss out on hundreds of thousands of dollars of retirement income." In addition, Nationwide argued that a lack of professional guidance was to blame for disappointment over Social Security benefits, with 37% of women who didn't get advice saying that they got somewhat less or much less than they expected from the program in retirement.

Despite Nationwide's negative conclusion about taking Social Security early, the decision of whether to take benefits early is quite complicated for women. Because of the interplay between spousal benefits, survivors benefits, and benefits based on their own work history, women have access to a number of strategies that can actually encourage early filing for certain benefits while still holding open the door to larger payments down the road.

Why taking early Social Security benefits for women can seem shortsighted
The argument in favor of waiting has to do with longer life expectancies for women. On average, according to Nationwide, the average 65-year-old woman can expect to live until age 86, and a quarter of 65-year-old women will live to 92. That's longer than the corresponding figures for men, and because the amount of Social Security payments are determined the same way for men as for women, women get a natural advantage because of their longer life expectancy. That makes it more likely that women will live beyond the breakeven points that govern whether someone will get more in benefits over the course of their lifetime by delaying Social Security benefits beyond the minimum claiming age of 62.

Source: Social Security Administration.

Moreover, Nationwide points out that many women have gaps in their work histories. That can produce smaller benefits than those who work throughout their careers, because Social Security considers a 35-year work history when determining benefit amounts. Nationwide argued that being a caregiver and having children costs the typical woman more than $25,000 in Social Security benefits. Taking those benefits early leads to even smaller payments in retirement, leaving them even less financially secure.

When claiming early is a smart move
On the other hand, it's often smart for women to claim benefits early. In particular, married women have a variety of strategies that can involve claiming benefits early in order to allow total family benefits to be as large as possible.

Source: Social Security Administration.

Perhaps the most popular strategy that has women claim their Social Security benefits early is the file-and-suspend strategy. A common situation involves a higher-earning husband at full retirement age of 66 and a lower-earning wife at age 62. By having the husband file and immediately suspend benefits on his work history, it allows the wife to claim spousal benefits right away, bringing in some Social Security money early on. Meanwhile, by waiting four years until age 70 to claim, the husband maximizes his benefits, which can lead to a higher total amount when you consider the entire family's benefits -- even if the wife's spousal benefit is smaller than it could have been.

File-and-suspend and similar strategies for married women also take advantage of the fact that because the husband often passes away first, the wife needs to plan not only for regular and spousal benefits, but also for survivors benefits after the husband's death. Claiming benefits under your own work history, or spousal benefits while the husband is still alive, doesn't have an impact on the survivors benefits later, so claiming early can often mean getting money that you otherwise wouldn't have received at all.

Despite all the debate about whether claiming early Social Security benefits is the smartest move you can make or a big mistake, the reality is that each situation is different. Only by being fully informed about the consequences of your decision can you make the one that truly puts you in the best position to live out your life in financial security.

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