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Retirement Planning > Social Security > Claiming Strategies

When Should Your Client Claim Social Security? 7 Questions to Ask

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What You Need to Know

  • Waiting longer means a bigger benefit, but this isn't the optimal answer for every client.
  • Factors such as whether the client is working and their health can come into play.
  • Claiming strategies for couples as well as surviving spouses can be complex.

One of the most important retirement decisions your client will make is when to claim Social Security benefits. Every client’s situation is different. For advisors helping their clients make this decision, there are many factors to consider.

Getting the Maximum Benefit

Social Security benefits max out at age 70. Taking a benefit at age 62, the earliest age that most people can claim a benefit, reduces the monthly benefit by 30% to 35% depending upon birth year. This is a permanent reduction.

For someone born in 1957, full retirement age (FRA) is 66 years and 6 months. By waiting until age 69 to claim benefits, they would collect 20% more per month than if they’d claimed at FRA.

There is an increase for each month they wait until they reach age 70, at which point their monthly benefit would max out at 28% higher than the amount they would have received at FRA.

Waiting as long as possible to claim their benefit will always result in the highest monthly payment, but this isn’t always the optimal answer for your client. Here are seven questions to ask to determine how other factors come into play in the claiming decision.

1. Is the Client Still Working?

If your client is working and they have not reached FRA, their benefit could be reduced or eliminated if their earned income from employment or self-employment exceeds the threshold. For 2022, the earned income threshold is $19,050.

Their benefit will be reduced by $1 for every $2 of earned income above that threshold. In the year they reach their FRA, the threshold is $51,960 and the benefit reduction is $1 for every $3 of earned income.

There are no income limits once your client reaches their FRA. The FRA is age 67 for those born in 1960 or later. For those born in 1959, FRA is age 66 and 10 months, with a two-month reduction for every year earlier back to those born in 1954 or earlier (back to 1943) when it is age 66.

Note that if the client had any of their benefits reduced due to their level of earned income, the amounts reduced will be added back to their benefit once they reach their FRA. But they still will have claimed at an earlier age with a reduced benefit.

2. Does Your Client Have a Health Condition?

If a client has a serious health condition that could limit their life expectancy, or if their life expectancy is lower than normal for other reasons, it might make sense for them to claim their benefit as early as age 62.

The logic here is simple and straightforward. If the client feels their life expectancy is limited, claiming early will help them maximize the overall dollars received from Social Security over their lifetime. You can help with the decision by looking at the numbers regarding claiming at various ages and various life expectancies to determine a break-even point between claiming earlier and waiting.

3. What About Their Spouse?

Social Security claiming strategies for married couples can be complicated. Factors such as the age difference between the spouses and the size of each spouse’s benefits need to be taken into account.

In many cases it will make sense for the spouse with the higher benefit to wait to apply until they reach their FRA or perhaps until age 70. This will maximize their benefit in their lifetime and will help increase any survivor’s benefits if they are the first to die.

4. Does Your Client Have a Pension, Annuity or Other Income Sources?

The Social Security claiming decision is part of the bigger picture of retirement income planning for your clients. Your clients may have a number of sources of retirement income, including distributions from retirement and taxable investment accounts.

They may be eligible for a pension from their employer, and they might have an annuity that will generate income. They may also have income from employment or self-employment in retirement.

In the case of a pension, it may behoove your client to wait a few years after retirement to claim the benefit. In this type of situation, claiming Social Security at an earlier age could make sense as an income bridge until they begin taking the pension.

The Social Security claiming decision is part of the overall retirement income planning strategy for your clients. This includes a look at the impact on their tax situation as well.

5. How Long Do They Want to Keep Working?

If your client intends to continue working well into their retirement years, it could make sense to claim their benefit any time between reaching their FRA and age 70.

If their income from employment for the year ranks as being in their top 35 years of career earnings, their monthly benefit could increase even if they have commenced taking their benefits.

And once they have reached their FRA, there is no benefit reduction for earned income. Waiting until age 70 if their earned income adds to their benefit level could offer a “double benefit,” so to speak.

6. Is Your Client Widowed?

Clients who are widows or widowers have options as a surviving spouse. Survivor’s benefits can be claimed as early as age 60, and earlier if the surviving spouse is caring for minor children or is disabled.

The surviving spouse can claim 100% of their deceased spouse’s benefit if the surviving spouse has reached their full retirement age unless the deceased spouse claimed their own benefit before reaching their FRA.

Another option is for the surviving spouse to claim survivor’s benefits as early as age 60 and then convert to their own benefit, if higher, as early as age 62 and as late as age 70. Note that if the surviving spouse is working, Social Security earnings limits before their FRA could come into play.

For a client who is the surviving spouse of a divorced spouse, they may qualify for a survivor’s benefit based on the earnings record of their deceased ex-spouse as well. The benefits would be the same as if your client was married to the deceased ex-spouse at the time of their death as long as the marriage had lasted at least 10 years.

A surviving spouse can still qualify for survivor’s benefits if they remarry after age 60 (age 50 if they are disabled).

The rules for surviving spouses and Social Security are complex and clients in this situation will rely on your advice to guide them to the best benefit claiming option for their situation.

7. Is Your Client Divorced?

A divorced person can claim a benefit on their ex-spouse’s earnings record as long as the marriage lasted for at least 10 years, they are at least 62 years of age and they have been divorced from their ex-spouse for at least two years.

If your client was born before Jan. 2, 1954, and has reached their FRA, they can choose to receive a benefit based on their ex-spouse’s earnings record and then switch to their own benefit later on if that benefit is higher.

That option does not exist for those born on or after Jan. 2, 1954. In this case, your client would need to choose either the benefit based on their ex-spouse’s earnings record or the benefit based on their own earnings record.

If your client remarries, they are no longer eligible for a benefit based on their ex-spouse’s earnings record.

Summary

The decision as to when to claim their Social Security benefits can involve a number of variables for your clients. They need your help in deciding when to claim their benefits in light of their overall retirement income situation.