Q&A: Deciding when to claim Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: In a recent article you discussed delaying Social Security benefits and wrote that for married couples, only the higher earner needs to wait until age 70 to get the largest possible check. I don’t understand the logic behind that statement.

I have always been told to wait until 70 to collect; however, my husband is the higher wage earner. Wouldn’t I still benefit from waiting until 70? If he is a few years younger than me, does that make a difference? If I don’t have to wait until 70, I am all for collecting at 66.

Answer: As you know, each year you delay boosts the check you get by roughly 7% to 8%. That’s a guaranteed return you can’t match elsewhere and why many financial planners encourage clients to delay claiming if they can. The “break-even” point — where the benefits you pass up are exceeded by the larger checks — can vary depending on the assumptions you make about investment returns, inflation and taxes. Generally speaking, you’ll be better off delaying until at least 66 if you live into your late 70s. If you delay until age 70, when your benefit maxes out, you’ll pass the break-even point in your early 80s.

None of us has a crystal ball, of course, and planners make the argument that Social Security should be viewed as longevity insurance: The longer you live, the more likely you are to spend your other assets and depend on your Social Security for most or all of your income. Given that reality, it makes sense to maximize that check.

That’s true for all individuals claiming Social Security, but married couples have another complication. When one dies, the other will have to get by on a single check — the larger of the two checks the couple was receiving. That’s the check that should be maximized, so it’s more important that the higher earner delay than that both spouses delay.

If you want a more detailed discussion of the issue, read financial planner Michael Kitces’ blog post “Why it rarely pays for both spouses to delay Social Security benefits” at kitces.com.

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