Most Americans don't understand all the ways that Social Security can benefit them, and no wonder — Social Security is an enormous, complex system that covers retirement, disability and death, with rules that are under-explained and confusing.
As a result, many recipients find out how to maximize their benefits only after beginning to receive them – when it is too late to change their elections.
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Here are four things that you need to know to maximize your Social Security benefit before you begin receiving your check.
You can receive benefits even if you never paid in. Spouses who have never worked (meaning they never paid Social Security taxes) may still be able to get retirement benefits under Social Security. You need to be at least 62 years old and your husband or wife must be eligible for retirement or disability benefits to apply. This second payment can significantly add to the total amount couples receive.
You may choose to a payment equal to half of what your spouse gets. If your spouse made more than you did in the course of your lives, his or her benefit is most likely higher than yours. When you apply, you can elect to take the benefit calculated on your salary, or one-half of your spouse's higher amount, without affecting your spouse's benefit. This can provide a much higher total benefit for working couples.
Wait to receive your benefit, and it continues to grow. Consider delaying benefits if you do not need them immediately – the additional income down the road may be significant. Benefits are increased by a certain percentage (depending on your date of birth) for each year that you delay your retirement. The increase can amount to up to eight percent more for each year that you wait to retire.
You may start receiving benefits before your spouse is retired. As long as your spouse has reached full retirement age (typically between 66 and 67), he or she can file for a benefit but suspend it. As your spouse continues to work and that benefit continues to grow, you may start to collect.
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By simply doing a little homework, you can make educated decisions about your Social Security and avoid mistakes you will have to live with for the rest of your life. Start by creating an account on the Social Security Administration (SSA) website. Check to make sure that the administration has recorded your work and earnings history accurately, as your retirement benefit is based in part on this history. Check back periodically to be sure the information stays accurate.
As you get closer to retirement, discuss your options with a financial planner or make an appointment with someone at the Social Security Administration.
Geoffrey S. Cable is managing director at Destination Wealth Management.