G

Social Security is critically important to nearly every American's financial security. Most current retirees collect thousands of dollars annually from the program, and workers hope to get their fair share of benefits when they retire. Yet there are many things that people don't know about Social Security, and some of them are very basic aspects of how the program works. Below, we reveal seven facts that a recent survey from the Financial Planning Association and AARP highlighted as being areas of confusion for many people.

1. You don't have to reach full retirement age to collect Social Security benefits...
Social Security's retirement age gets a lot of attention from those considering when to retire, and proposals to increase the retirement age make many people mistakenly believe that they might have to wait longer to claim benefits. Yet under current law, you can claim Social Security as early as age 62. Moreover, even as the full retirement age starts to increase from its current level of 66 up to 67 by 2022, the 62-year-old minimum won't be affected.

2. ...but waiting until full retirement age has a big impact on what you get.
Most people understand that by waiting until full retirement age to claim Social Security, their monthly checks will be bigger than if they claim early. However, most don't know by how much their benefits will rise. For those reaching retirement age now, waiting for four years from 62 to 66 will boost your monthly check by a third. Younger Americans with a retirement age of 67 could see their benefits rise by more than 40% by waiting the five years after age 62.

3. You can also get even more from Social Security by waiting beyond full retirement age...
If you want to maximize your monthly retirement check from Social Security, you can earn delayed retirement credits by waiting even longer after you reach full retirement age. Each year you wait until age 70, you'll see a rise of 8% of your full-retirement-age check amount. Beyond age 70, no additional delayed retirement credits are available, so there's no reason to wait any longer.

4. ...and doing so can help you maximize your spouse's survivor benefit after your death.
Survivors benefits for your spouse are based on your benefit, and that amount is adjusted for when you took your retirement benefits. The longer you wait, the more your spouse will get, until benefits max out at age 70. That can be an important factor in considering the total value of your Social Security benefits even beyond your own lifetime.

5. Don't forget about spousal benefits...
In addition to your own retirement benefits, those who are married have rights to benefits based on their spouse's work history. You'll receive whichever is higher, but many couples fail to consider the potential value of spousal benefits. In order to claim a spousal benefit based on your spouse's work history, your spouse has to have filed for Social Security retirement benefits. In some cases, the spousal benefit is much higher than your own, especially if your spouse had a longer work record than you did.

6. ...even for divorced spouses.
Many people are shocked to learn that those who are divorced can still claim spousal benefits based on an ex-spouse's work history in some cases. To qualify, though, the marriage has to have lasted 10 years or longer. In addition, the claiming spouse must not marry someone else in the interim, or else any spousal benefits based on the ex-spouse's record are no longer available.

7. Forfeiting benefits isn't as bad as many think.
Many people know that if you take benefits before reaching full retirement age and continue to work, you can end up having to forfeit some of your Social Security. For 2016, those who won't reach full retirement age this year and earn more than $15,720 lose $1 in annual benefits for every $2 they earn above the threshold.

Yet what people don't know is that forfeiture can result in larger monthly checks down the road. For every month's worth of benefits you forfeit, the Social Security Administrations treats you as if you had filed for benefits a month later than you actually did. That increases your monthly payments in the future, offsetting the forfeited amount over time.

There are many aspects of Social Security that people don't know. By becoming familiar with these facts, you can put yourself ahead of the vast majority of Americans.

Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.