The general rule of thumb is that you should delay claiming Social Security benefits in most situations so you can increase the size of your monthly checks. While you become eligible for benefits at 62, waiting to file results in an increase in retirement benefits that can be valuable if you run short of money later in life.
However, many experts believe there's an exception to this rule and advise pre-retirees to claim Social Security benefits ASAP if they're in poor health. The reason for this is simple: Delaying benefits makes sense only if you outlive your life expectancy and receive higher payments for long enough to make up for checks you passed up. Those who pass early due to health issues may not meet that milestone.
While this advice seems good on the surface, there's an important caveat. In some situations, even if your health is bad and you're not likely to live long, you may want to delay claiming Social Security benefits. Here's why.
Some seniors in poor health should wait to claim benefits
Delaying a claim for Social Security benefits may not appear to make sense if you project a short life expectancy because it can take over a decade for higher monthly checks to make up for missed benefits. However, it could be the right financial decision if you have a spouse that will depend on survivor benefits.
Survivor benefits provide retirement income to widows and widowers. If your spouse earned less money than you did throughout their career -- or if they didn't work at all -- survivor benefits may provide more Social Security income than their own retirement benefit or could even be their only source of income if they aren't eligible for their own benefit.
The problem is, your decision to claim early will shrink survivor benefits because your surviving spouse is entitled to keep up to 100% of your Social Security benefit amount (if the surviving spouse claims at full retirement age). If you've claimed your benefit early and reduced the size of your benefit, your surviving spouse would get less money as a result of that decision.
Widowhood can already be a huge financial shock, since typically, it means going from receiving two Social Security benefits to just one. The lower the amount of the survivor benefits you leave behind, the more difficult it will be for your spouse to make ends meet. By delaying your claim, you can avoid reducing the money your spouse receives once you're gone.
Rather than taking the chance of leaving your spouse in the lurch if you pass away early, it's often better to have the lower-earning spouse claim benefits first so you can wait as long as possible to claim yours and raise your check amount -- even if your health isn't great. While you may not live long enough to personally break even for the delay, you'll be doing a good thing to take care of your partner after you're gone and will potentially increase the combined lifetime benefits you both receive.