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Claiming Social Security: The Most Popular Questions

Category: Financial and taxes in retirement

(Updated Sept. 2021) August 2019 — People have many questions about Social Security, but the ones that come up most frequently are usually related to claiming benefits. They are confused or unsure about when they can claim, how much they will receive, spousal benefits (including those for divorced people), special filing strategies, etc. This article will go over some of those questions and, hopefully, provide helpful answers. The Social Security website also has great FAQs and other helpful information.

When can I claim Social Security retirement benefits? Most people have a pretty good idea of how to calculate the answer to this question – the earliest you can claim is age 62. The longer you wait to claim, the higher your benefit, up until age 70.

What is my Social Security “Full Retirement Age” (FRA)? This is the age when you fully qualify for your Social Security benefits. For people born between 1943 and 1954 the FRA is age 66. For those born in 1955 or after, it increases two month per year until it reaches age 67 for those born in 1960 or later (2027 for them). Note that “Full” is not a very logical term, since if you delay collecting your benefits past your FRA you will get higher than “full” benefits anytime up to age 70.

Should I delay claiming my Social Security benefit? This is probably the ultimate Social Security calculation, with a wide range of opposing answers from financial experts. Our opinion at Topretirements is that delaying as long as possible is better, provided you don’t otherwise need the money to live on and you have reason to believe you will live to something close to your “breakeven” point (see below). If you delay you, and your surviving spouse, will get a much bigger monthly benefit, adjusted for inflation, than if you collected early. It is a modest but guaranteed form of insurance against outliving your money in the event you live to a very old age.

The argument for taking Social Security early is that if you die soon after you retire you will have at least get some money. Those who advocate waiting would counter that if you claim early and you and/or your spouse live into your late 80s or more, you will lose out on tens of thousands of dollars that you might have really needed. Talk to your financial advisor and see what he or she thinks – there are many opinions on the subject.

How can you calculate the “breakeven” point for delaying Social Security? The breakeven point is the date where the amount you would have collected in benefits is the same, regardless of when you started collecting. Many people are proud to tell you that they have figured out the breakeven point. Not all of them have done it correctly. Social Security is indexed against inflation, for example, but that is often left out in the calculation. How long your spouse will live is another consideration. Implied rates of return are key also. When you take Social Security does change the breakeven point.

Andy Landis, author of Social Security” The Inside Story” gives a few examples. If a woman starts to take her retirement benefit at age 62, for example, her breakeven point might be age 78. Up until that age she would be ahead by starting benefits at 62 vs. waiting until her Full Retirement Age of 66. If she lives longer than 78, however, the better option would have been to wait until Full Retirement Age. If the same person starts collecting benefits at age 66, she is ahead until her breakeven point of 82.5; if she lives longer, waiting until age 70 to file would be a much better option. Different experts have different breakeven points, but give or take a few years, they are in the same ballpark. One factor favoring delaying is that Social Security’s actuarial calculations were made years ago when life expectancy was not as high it is now (not counting the influence of Covid deaths).

Is Social Security going to run out of money? Social Security currently has trust funds built up from the surplus of payments coming in vs. benefits paid out. Currently more retirement benefits are being paid out than come in. In 2034 the real problem begins. That is when the reserves in the retirement portion of Social Security (OASI) are exhausted and the fund must rely exclusively on taxes paid in from working people to cover promised benefits. Starting that year, unless something is done soon, Social Security will be able to only pay about 78% of promised retirement benefits (from the 2021 Trustees Report).

Most experts believe that something will be done to avoid what could amount to throwing millions of Americans into poverty. Unfortunately nothing much is happening in the government to fix the Social Security shortfall, despite pleas from the Social Security Trustees to address the problem while there is still time.

What kinds of spousal benefits are there? People who have been married at least one year can claim spousal benefits based on the earnings of their spouse. The benefits are only available if the other spouse is currently receiving benefits. The spousal benefit maxes at 50%, if both members of the couple are at Full Retirement Age when they start collecting. When one member of the couple dies the other is generally entitled to 100% of the deceased member’s benefit, something that many early claimers fail to appreciate. Divorced spouses can also collect on their former spouse’s earning records, if the marriage lasted at least 10 years and the ex-spouse is at least 62. The ex-spouse does not have to be collecting yet. If a spouse collecting on an ex’s benefit remarries, that benefit goes away.

The File and Suspend strategy for claiming spousal benefits is no longer available. The Restricted Benefit is still available to people born before Jan. 2, 1954. In that case you can receive a spousal benefit if your spouse is already receiving benefits, but can delay collecting on your own earning record until age 70.

Is Social Security income taxed? It depends on your total income. People who rely totally on Social Security will probably not pay any taxes on it. For those with large incomes, as much as 85% of their benefits could be considered taxable.

For further reading

Turning 66 in 2019: Time Running out for Restricted Benefit

Take the Quiz: What Is Your Social Security Quiz

What You Think You Know About Social Security Could Hurt You

Comments? Please share your questions about Social Security in the Comments section below.

Posted by Admin on August 13th, 2019


  1. Just ab FYI. The spousal benefit option is still available if born before 1954. My spouse collects 1/2 of my SS payment monthly under this provision and can until she is70. Until then her SS benefit grows at 8% annually. Not much is said about this because most believe it was done away with under the last Administration but it was grandfathered in for those born before 1954.

    Editor’s note: Thanks Ralph. This is the “File and Suspend” strategy, and people born before 1954 are grandfathered in for it. But, if you haven’t already taken it, it is too late.

    by Ralph — August 14, 2019

  2. Also be aware that if you have above a certain income 2 years before you retire – for example, high salary, big bonus, inheritance, lottery winnings – your SS earnings may be docked for high Medicare “premiums”. So if you’re lucky enough to have a high income, save some of that $ for when you start SD and Medicare! Apparently sometimes people spend, for example, an inheritance then are shocked when 2 years later they need that for Medicare premiums – and SS will be docked if not paid. No one at SSA could explain why I got no SS for months until finally one smart employee figured it out. Lucky we had savings!

    by Jini — August 14, 2019

  3. So it sounds like one more reason to start collecting early; spousal survival benefits. If both spouses wait until full retirement age and one spouse drops dead before that date, the surviving spouse would lose out on the deceased survival benefits.

    Editor’s note: The surviving would get either their own benefit of that of the deceased spouse, whichever is higher. Even the spouse dies before their FRA, the survivor would be getting a benefit higher than if they had filed earlier.

    by Carl J — August 14, 2019

  4. Jini and others — A possible way to avoid the higher Medicare premiums based on prior 2 years earnings after your retirement is to file a one-time form SSA-44. This form will advise Medicare of your “life-changing event” (retirement), so that your prior 2 years of earnings will NOT be used to calculate your Medicare payment. Instead, your Medicare payment will be based on your anticipated retirement income.

    Not all Social Security representatives seem to be aware of this form. I retired last year, and had taken this form into my local office and filed it in person with a statement from my employer confirming I retired. My Medicare payment was adjusted downward. I’ve gotten letters twice since then, trying to adjust my payment back up. Each time, I’ve taken a copy of my original SSA-44 into my local office and the payment was adjusted back down. It’s been worth the minor aggravation.

    by Kate — August 15, 2019

  5. Confused by the editors reply to my previous comment. The article states that spousal benefits based on the earnings of the other spouse but the other spouse must currently be collecting the benefit. If both spouses are waiting until FRA to collect and one spouse dies prior to FRA, how can the surviving spouse collect a spousal benefit? What am I misunderstanding?

    Editor’s note: I see the confusion. Here is what we think happens. Even though the deceased spouse hasn’t filed, the survivor would still be entitled to benefits based on the deceased spouse’s earning record (or the survivor’s record if higher). We can’t find a specific example of how this works, but it seems logical that the benefit would be based on the deceased spouse’s record at the time of death or when the survivor files for benefits.

    by Carl J — August 15, 2019

  6. My wife died a few years ago at the age of 56. I am now 63. I filed for survivors benefits (last year) based on her work record and now receive $775 a month. In a few years, I will cancel that and file for my own benefits based on my work record. I will then get $2,100 a month at age 66 (FRA) or $2,700 a month if I wait until I’m 70.

    by Dave M. — August 21, 2019

  7. Can’t overestimate the importance of being aware of spousal benefits if you were born before 1954. Few couples seem to realize they have this option. The key for us is that our maximum monthly SS benefits are reasonably close in dollars. So our strategy is to have the spouse with the lower payment (in our case, wife) begin taking the full benefit, while the spouse takes the spousal benefit (50 percent). The higher monthly benefit continues to grow. Within 2.5 years, that higher monthly benefit’s survivor benefit will exceed the maximum benefit that the lower monthly payment could possibly grow to. It’s like getting a few free years of half a benefit. In my husband’s 69th year he will take his own full benefit, which is the amount I will get if he dies. Waiting has allowed that survivor benefit to grow. It’s confusing, but it can be worth puzzling out. And no one tells you about this unless they’re doing it themselves!

    by Pam Thomas — August 21, 2019

  8. Exactly, Pam. My husband and I are using the same strategy for the same reasons. I learned about it from Laurence Kotlikoff’s book, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security”.

    Like many of life’s decisions, the more research we do on the front end the fewer regrets we are likely to have on the back end.

    by JCarol — August 22, 2019

  9. The knee jerk reaction for many planners is to say wait because of more benefits at a later age. However they don’t factor in the growth on the money they are replacing the social security with. In my case I will have to use my 401k money which will then not be making any interest. Add that on top of the money I am foregoing my break even age is actually 93.

    by Michael Milosovic — September 19, 2021

  10. Pam and others. Reading these posts and trying to make sense of them. So, it appears the system gives an advantage to married couples? It doesn’t seem right. Is anyone here divorced after a long term marriage? Seems that women in our generation are disadvantaged if we stayed home to raise children because those years count s zeros in the 35 year look back. So many of my divorced female friends now are still working into their seventies to try to catch up in terms of SS due to those years. Back then, most women spent years raising children, as there were no options or “day care” and it just wasn’t done. I sure wish they would either not count those years, or give credit for those years. There are wo many loopholes for married couples to maximize SS payments that it doesn’t seem right.

    by Maimi — September 20, 2021

  11. I feel the way Maimi does. When you are divorced, you really go it alone. The only thing that I could hope for besides my own benefit (I worked for over 40 years since I was 18) is the possible survivor benefit if my ex were to die before I do. Couples have the advantage of two incomes and two social security benefits which helps greatly in retirement. I was married fifteen years. I did not mind earning my own money as a nurse, my ex worked at a high-level job for the Federal government since 1979. He took a three-year break in the 1990s to start a company that failed. I do feel couples have all the advantages when it comes to social security benefits, women who could not work due to child care or care of elderly adult parents lose out.

    by Jennifer — September 21, 2021

  12. Hello Maimi,

    So long as a person was were married (an actual marriage, not common law) for 10 or more years to the same person they would collect the higher of the 2 social security checks therefore they are not disadvantaged by being a divorcee as it pertains to SS. The system is set up for said person to receive the higher of the 2 checks specifically so they are not punished for partaking in homemaking. Also, there is alimony, getting half of ex-spouse pension/401k/IRA/real property division, etc. so a divorced homemaker is not destitute simply due to the act of divorce.

    Regards, Danno

    by Danno — September 21, 2021

  13. Danno, not sure where you got your information, but it is not accurate. A divorced person can only get 1/2 of a former spouse’s amount if it is more than her own. Homemakers get a zero in the calculation for every year spent out of the paid workforce. This lowers the amount of SS many women in my generation get because they do a 35 year look back calculation. This has left many divorced women destitute and in poverty. The policy has a disparate impact on women with children. It appears that the way this will be addressed in the future if the current proposals are passed, is that the government will raise our children with “universal daycare” so all women can work outside the home. I would prefer to see a change in the SS calculations so that if a parent stays home, the zero does not hurt the. For the rest od their lives. It is my opinion that it is in the best interest of children and society that parents raise their own children if possible.

    by Maimi — September 21, 2021

  14. Miami, I agree with your suggestion that zero years ratings should be dropped from calculations.

    by Maryann — September 22, 2021

  15. It is my understanding that Soc. Sec. will take the top 10 earnings years to determine your payments. Thus, leaving a lot of zeros out of the equation. Once I hit 66-2 months, I was able to claim against my own accounts until my husband reached FRA (full retirement age). Now I get an extra few $$ to bring it to HALF of his.

    My sister was divorced, when her ex died. As a “widow” she is able to claim his full FRA amount until she reaches 70 when her claim will be more than his and she can switch.

    Hope that helps some of you.

    by HEF — September 23, 2021

  16. HEF, It’s more than 10. From the social security web site.

    35 years
    Social Security benefits are based on your lifetime earnings. Your actual earnings are adjusted or “indexed” to account for changes in average wages since the year the earnings were received. Then Social Security calculates your average indexed monthly earnings during the 35 years in which you earned the most.

    Your Retirement Benefit: How It Is Figured – Social Security › pubs

    by Tess — September 23, 2021

  17. Hef, no it does not help most people and the calculations have a negative and disparate impact on women of past generations.

    by Maimi — September 23, 2021

  18. It isn’t and shouldn’t be all about SS as the program was designed to only replace 35% of your working income (similar to unemployment benefits). What about, life insurance policies, getting half of ex-spouse pension/401k/IRA/real property division? Also, a homemaker could have contributed to an IRA for decades if they have a working spouse so that IRA would be fat by now. I started maxing out my 401K and IRA’s from age 24 on so now I have $4 million in savings at age 51. If no workplace plan offered or self-employed then a SEP or SEP-IRA is available. Let the time power of money create the wealth and do the heavy lifting for you. Also, by maxing out savings (paying yourself first) it forces you to live on what is left over so you buy smaller house, drive cars 15 years instead of trading up every few years, cook at home more instead of eating out, wear clothes until worn out, etc. Use the 50/30/20 budgeting rule as a good starting point.

    Regards, Danno

    by Danno — September 24, 2021

  19. Danno, I agree with you, but that’s a conversation to have with our kids. Kinda like me asking someone how, at 61 years and a double digit golf handicap, how I can play more like Tiger Woods. Their response: “go back and pick up golf when you’re 2 years old.” Not reality-based advice for me.

    The frugality piece certainly applies, but I’m a believer in deferring taking SS as long as possible while healthy and able to work (even part time). This provides more guaranteed income for the years when you’re not able to work. If unable to work due to health problems, or there are future income streams in your future (like an inheritance), filing early may be appropriate.

    We all make retirement planning mistakes in our lives. For high income earners, though, the financial safety nets are far larger and cushier than the majority of folks working and raising kids. Far more difficult for them to carve out $5k annually for an IRA.

    by Greg W — September 24, 2021

  20. Thank you guys for the further clarification! Its interesting that we can hold on to “something we heard” or “thought that we read”, along the way. I remember looking at my statements every year and once I knew I had enough to qualify for payments, I relaxed! Its just supposed to be icing on the cake but a lot of people rely on it more than was originally intended. There were rumblings in the 1990s about Soc. Sec. running out of money so we made every effort to set some $$ aside, max out our payroll contributions and invest. I do have some friends who were not so lucky.

    by HEF — September 24, 2021

  21. Danno, all I can say is good for you, but I can assure you that many women in my generation ,who were traditional stay at home mothers, were not accumulating 4 million dollars by the age of 51 and I sure didn’t have my own IRA or any separate accounts. Back then, family came first and many women did not have their own retirement savings. Sounds like you did not stay home to raise children?

    by Maimi — September 25, 2021

  22. A few people here are preaching from a place of privilege.

    Many people never were offered defined benefit pensions and only started 401K’s and IRA’s in the 1990’s via employers. 2008 hit many hard and while accounts have recovered from that…it took a long time. Social security is a much-needed program for many people, and that is the reality of today’s world. True it was to be only 1/3 of a three-legged plan with a pension (very few have these and they are now almost extinct), and savings (depends on the ability of the saver), and of course Social security. It is time to adapt to the reality of today and make a few changes to help those who were not able to save due to low wages or who were not financial wizards with the ability to make great monetary gains. What do we expect people to do when they are no longer able to work? A could of, would of, should of mentality does not help the situation.

    by Jennifer — September 25, 2021

  23. Very well said, Jennifer. We were luckier than many, not as lucky as some. And it took both of us working to make it. $4 million is a pipe dream for 95% or more.

    by RichPB — September 26, 2021

  24. Jennifer, so true. Also, the role of women in society has changed drastically since many of us were raising families. Day care did not really exist until relatively recently. The SS rules have had a negative and disparate impact on women.

    by Maimi — September 26, 2021

  25. One thing is that I realize that my Mother and the fond memories of her staying home and not working when my brother and I were growing up is what many women long for today. My mother did work after I went off to college and my brother also was on his own. She needed social interaction. When we grew up, my father would never entertain the thought of forcing her to work outside of the home. She now gets half of his social security benefits and she deserves every penny. If she can get more, I would be all for it as both parents are now elderly. Raising children is for the benefit of our country and society. Women participate in eldercare more than men–there should be no penalty to women as both childcare and at home, eldercare saves money overall in taxes and Medicaid benefits.

    by Jennifer — September 27, 2021

  26. Jennifer, unfortunately there is not much advocacy for seniors in today’s political climate. Seniors are a forgotten population to today’s Congress. It is sad to see how seniors were treated during this pandemic.

    by Maimi — September 27, 2021

  27. Fortunately, AARP, – besides being a nonprofit organization that provides lots of services and programs for seniors – also does an excellent job of lobbying Congress and state legislatures for the benefit of seniors. We could always use more advocacy from other organizations, though. Don’t forget to contact your legislator on issues affecting older people. That can definitely help.

    by Clyde — September 28, 2021

  28. Clyde, yes AARP advocates for some things, but has not been strong advocates for reform to Social Security at all. They pretty much just follow one party’s agenda. SS payments have been double taxed for decades now and they have not advocated for women specifically.

    by Maimi — September 29, 2021

  29. Besides advocating for my self by contacting my representatives in DC I support:

    by Mike — September 30, 2021

  30. The issue of “double taxation” of Social Security benefits doesn’t mean that all SS benefits are taxed twice. It is nuanced. For the most part, only higher income people who have a significant amount of “provisional income” over and above SS benefits get hit with some additional tax. If double taxation refers to the fact that some SS income is taxed at both the state and federal level, only 13 states do this. The Motley Fool website explains the “double taxation” issue clearly in the following article, well worth reading.

    by Clyde — September 30, 2021

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