Social Security is a significant source of income for older Americans. Retirement benefits are available at age 62 and disability benefits at any age.
If you start retirement benefits at 62, the monthly benefit is up to 30% less than if you wait until full retirement age, which varies with your birth year, from 66 to 67. If you wait until age 70, the monthly benefit is up to 30% more.
Most retirees claim their benefits too early, resulting in significantly decreased monthly and total lifetime payments. Unless you die prematurely, it pays to wait. As a rule, if you expect to live beyond 78, wait until full retirement age to start Social Security retirement benefits. If you (or your spouse) expect to live to 82½, wait until 70.
If married, you can take either a spousal benefit based on the other spouse’s earnings (if that spouse is already receiving Social Security) or a retirement benefit based on your own work record, whichever is higher. Survivor benefits are available based on a deceased spouse’s earnings record.
“File and suspend” was a strategy that allowed the lower-earning spouse to receive benefits based on his or her own earnings record while the higher-earning spouse’ account continued to grow. That loophole closed April 29, 2016. Disregard “helpful” explanations that suggest that ploy. It doesn’t work anymore.
“File and switch” still works, but only if both spouses are eligible for retirement benefits and at least one reached age 62 in 2015. In this strategy, an individual at full retirement age applies for spousal benefits based on the other spouse’s earnings record, allowing the applicant’s own retirement benefit to continue to grow (up to age 70).
Single or married, most people will receive more Social Security benefits if they do not claim them at 62, but instead wait until full retirement age (66 to 67) or, better yet, age 70, for the maximum retirement benefit.
Regardless of whether you defer Social Security retirement benefits, don’t wait on Medicare, the health insurance plan for people who are age 65 or older. Most Americans will want to contact Social Security about three months before their 65th birthday to apply for Medicare, even those still working.
Sally Balch Hurme’s work, Get the Most Out of Retirement (2017) is another great resource.
Chapter 9 discusses Social Security and Chapter 10 explains Medicare.