Retirees wait longer to claim Social Security benefits

Retire well: Maximizing social security benefits
Retire well: Maximizing social security benefits

More people are waiting longer to retire, and that's affecting when they claim Social Security benefits.

While more than a third of workers still claim Social Security retirement benefits when they turn 62, the earliest age possible, a growing number are waiting until their mid-60s or later, according to a new study. (Tweet This) And that's to their benefit: the longer they wait, the bigger their payments can be.

"The good news is that more people are claiming retired-worker benefits at later ages, and this pattern is consistent with increased labor force participation at older ages and the rise in the average retirement age," Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research, and co-author Anqi Chen wrote in their study.

Workers claiming benefits at the age of 62 dropped from 56 percent in 1996 to 35.6 percent in 2013 for men and from 62.8 percent in 1996 to 39.5 percent in 2013 for women, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College analysis, which used unpublished data from the Social Security Administration to calculate the number of people eligible for retired-worker benefits by birth year. Meanwhile, the percentage of those waiting until their full retirement age, or the age at which they're entitled to full benefits, rose from 17.5 percent in 1996 to 28.1 percent in 2009 for both men and women.

The differences between men and women are also diminishing. "This pattern has to do with the changing role of women in the workforce," Munnell said. "The gap has been shrinking over time and should probably eventually disappear because women's work patterns are converging with those of men."

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Claiming Social Security benefits early shrinks payouts by as much as 30 percent. The Social Security Administration reduces a retirement benefit by 5/9 of 1 percent for each month before full retirement age, up to 36 months. If the number of months exceeds 36, then the benefit is further reduced by 5/12 of 1 percent per month. The agency also imposes limits on income for early retirees. If early retirees earn more than $15,720 in 2015, their benefits will be reduced by $1 for every $2 they earn above the limit.

Nonetheless, for decades, the majority of retirees took benefits early even as many financial advisers urged them to wait. Now that's starting to change.

Social Security claims fall into four broad categories: Those who claim at 62, those who claim between 62 and full retirement, those who claim at full retirement age, and those who claim after full retirement age.

While claiming benefits at 62 is still more popular than claiming between 62 and full retirement is and , or researchers found that waiting to claim benefits at full retirement age was the second most popular option for both men and women. That age differs depending on your birth year. If you were born between 1943 and 1954, your full retirement age is 66. Then the full retirement age increases in two-month increments each year for those born between 1955 and 1959. For those born in 1960 and later, the full retirement age is currently 67. (The Social Security Administration offers a calculator to help you determine your full retirement age.)

Waiting past full retirement age can boost Social Security benefits even more. Each year you wait past full retirement age to claim Social Security benefits up to age 70, you earn an 8 percent delayed retirement credit that will increase your Social Security benefits in addition to cost of living adjustments.

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While the increase in people waiting to claim their retirement benefits may result in bigger payouts, it's not likely to affect the financial status of Social Security much.

"On the expenditure side, benefits are actuarially adjusted so that—on average—it shouldn't matter whether people are claiming early at 62 or as late as 70," Munnell said. "On the revenue side, having people continue to work and contribute does increase payroll tax revenues. On a slightly more esoteric level, if the people who are postponing are high-income, long-living people, their delay will slightly increase the costs of the program."

All of Social Security's trust funds are projected to be depleted by 2033. But even after that year, the agency projects that it will have enough money from payroll taxes to cover three-quarters of the benefits it has promised retirees, according to the 2014 trustee's report. However, studies from Harvard and Dartmouth found that the Social Security Administration's actuarial forecasts have been consistently overstating the financial health of the program's trust funds since 2000, and the trust funds could be depleted sooner than projected.

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Whatever the future benefit payouts of Social Security may be, more Americans plan on working longer to fund their retirement. Eighty-two percent of workers age 60 or older expect to keep working past age 65 or do not plan to retire, according to a recent survey of American workers from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. And the estimated retirement age of American workers polled by Gallup has slowly risen from 63 in 2002 to 66 last year.

Whether working longer and claiming Social Security later will be enough for most Americans to afford a decent retirement, though, remains unclear.