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When to claim Social Security: Finding the right timing for you

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At this stage in life, you may find yourself asking the all-important question—when to claim Social Security retirement benefits. Timing the start of your payments so that you end up getting the optimal amount can be a complicated decision and make a vast difference in the quality of your golden years. It's crucial to have a grasp on how your benefit changes based on if you begin taking Social Security early or waiting as long as possible and to have a strategy that suits your needs.

This article guides you through understanding Social Security, with tips on determining the most advantageous time for claiming these benefits.

How your Social Security benefit is determined

You can start receiving Social Security retirement benefits as early as age 62. However, you can increase your monthly benefit amount by waiting until you reach full retirement age—the age at which the Social Security Administration determines you're entitled to 100% of your Social Security benefits—or postponing those benefits until as late as age 70.

But what determines the size of those benefits?

During your working years, payroll taxes are subtracted from your earnings and put into a trust fund. The money withheld from your pay is paid to current retirees—not held on your behalf. However, you earn credits during those earning years. Most people need 40 credits (10 years of work) to qualify for retirement benefits.

When you file for Social Security, the government tallies the top-earning 35 years of your career, indexes it for inflation and applies a few more calculations, algorithms and formulas to determine your average indexed monthly earnings. As a result, the longer you work and the more you pay in, the higher your benefits.

Factors affecting when to apply for Social Security benefits

Planning out when to apply for benefits can be complicated, but it's essential. The decision between taking Social Security at age 62 versus waiting until age 70 can mean a difference of thousands of dollars.

The "best" time to claim Social Security, however, is different for everyone. There's not a just-right age or set of perfect conditions to meet. Instead, you may need to weigh certain factors that affect your decision, including:

  • Lifestyle. What kind of lifestyle do you envision for your retirement, and how will Social Security and your savings support it? You may want or need to stop working but not have the luxury of delaying your Social Security until full retirement age or later. Holding off on taking benefits as long as possible may be the route you want to go, but you'll want to make sure you have enough other savings to fulfill your needs and goals if so.
  • Health. How long might your health support the retirement you have planned? Some people work robustly until or even beyond full retirement age. Some don't. It's a highly individual choice. And regardless of your intentions, a health event can happen unexpectedly. If you're familiar ahead of time with how changing your timing affects Social Security, you can plan for the optimal claiming time for different scenarios.
  • Life expectancy. How many years of benefits do you expect to receive? There's no way to know how long you might live, but if your grandparents and parents led long, healthy lives, you might be able to expect the same.
  • Survivor needs. How might benefits change for your surviving partner? We'll go into more detail about survivor benefits later in this article.
  • Working in retirement. If you're full retirement age or older and choose to work, you may keep all your benefits. However, if you apply for Social Security before full retirement age and work in retirement, the Social Security Administration may withhold a percentage of your benefit. This money isn't taken away; your benefit will be adjusted to reflect your income using the earnings test, allowing you to claim a higher benefit in the future.
  • Other income in retirement. Pensions, retirement account distributions and investment earnings won't affect the amount of your benefit, but they can make a difference in how much of your benefit is subject to income taxes.

Comparing Social Security benefit timing options

Your Social Security payment is based in part on what the Social Security Administration has determined is your full retirement age, which varies depending on the year you were born. If you start taking benefits at the listed age, you get your whole, unreduced benefit.

This table can help you find your full retirement age:

Year of birth
Full retirement age
1943 – 1954
66 and 2 months
66 and 4 months
66 and 6 months
66 and 8 months
66 and 10 months
1960 or after

If you claim Social Security benefits "early"—between age 62 and your full retirement age—your benefit amount is reduced by roughly 0.56% for each month you receive benefits before your full retirement age up to 36 months and roughly 0.42% for each additional month. This can result in as much as a 30% decrease.

However, you can get more than 100% of your full-retirement-age benefit amount if you delay claiming Social Security benefits. For every year beyond full retirement age that you don't take Social Security—up to age 70—you can add between 3% and 8% per year to your benefit depending on the year you were born.

An example can more clearly illustrate how early, full and delayed Social Security benefits compare:

  • Say your full retirement age is 67 and your full benefit if you retired then would be $1,000 per month.
  • Retiring early at age 62 would make your payment $700 per month—or 30% less than at full retirement age.
  • Delaying your Social Security benefits until the maximum age of 70 would make your payment $1,240—or 24% more than at full retirement age.

Keep in mind that this doesn't mean you should definitely wait until age 70 to claim Social Security. Starting your benefits at 62 and living to age 100 could net you more Social Security money than waiting until age 70 and living to 75. So while you can crunch the numbers for comparison, your personal factors may drive your decision about when to claim and how it affects the amount you get.

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Social Security for married couples

Coordinating your Social Security benefits with your spouse's benefits can help you better plan for the retirement you envision. Read on for guidance and common scenarios applicable to married couples nearing age 62.

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Factors that may impact your spouse & other surviving family members

Your timing for claiming your Social Security benefits may affect other people in your life.

Social Security benefits as a married couple

Married couples should pay particular attention to timing so they can optimize their Social Security benefits.

If you don't need the money to live on right away, you can potentially maximize your total benefits by having the higher-earning spouse delay claiming benefits until age 70. This strategy not only increases their retirement benefit but also the potential survivor benefit for the lower-earning spouse.

Furthermore, the lower-earning spouse might consider claiming their own benefit early and then switch to a higher spousal benefit when the higher-earning spouse claims. This level of strategic timing can make a big difference, securing a more comfortable financial future into your golden years.

Social Security survivor benefits

Your benefits also can impact survivor benefits—benefits your family members may be eligible for after you die. Family members who can collect benefits include:

  • Widows and widowers
  • Surviving divorced spouses if you were married for at least 10 years
  • Children up to the age of 19 still attending elementary or secondary school (or any age if they incurred a disability before age 22)
  • Parents if they depended on you for at least half of their support

The two factors that influence the amount of survivor benefits your eligible family members can receive are:

  • The age you initially claimed a retirement benefit
  • The age your surviving spouse claims their benefit

Social Security benefits for spouses and survivors are complex. If you're concerned about maximizing them, ask your financial advisor to model some scenarios.

Understanding how Social Security benefits are taxed

Many new retirees are surprised to discover that up to 85% of their Social Security benefits may be subject to income taxes depending on how much other income they have.

The IRS taxes you in retirement on your provisional income, which includes wages, taxable and nontaxable interest, dividends, pensions and half of your Social Security benefits.

This table shows how much of your benefits are subject to tax depending on your marital status and income:

Benefits subject to tax
Provisional income, married couple
Provisional income, single person
Under $32,000
Under $25,000
Up to 50%
Between $32,000 and $44,000
Between $25,000 and $34,000
Up to 85%
More than $44,000
More than $34,000

You can minimize taxes on your Social Security benefits by lowering other income. Some strategies to consider and discuss with your financial advisor and tax professional include:

Often, a strategy to lower taxable income includes investing in municipal bonds, which are usually tax-advantaged. However, municipal bond interest counts when calculating the tax on your Social Security benefits.

Navigating how Social Security benefits can work best for you

You have a lot to consider when deciding when to begin claiming Social Security. While waiting as long as possible to start claiming benefits might seem financially advantageous, that doesn't mean it's the best choice for everyone.

If you need help making the right decision, contact a Thrivent financial advisor. They can help you review retirement goals, personal circumstances and other essential elements to make a decision that supports a more comfortable future for you and your family.

Thrivent financial advisors and professionals have general knowledge of the Social Security tenets. For complete details on your situation, contact the Social Security Administration.

Hypothetical examples are for illustrative purposes. May not be representative of actual results.

Thrivent and its financial advisors and professionals do not provide legal, accounting or tax advice. Consult your attorney or tax professional.