Q&A: Which work years determine Social Security?

Dear Liz: My wife and I are both 59. We expect to retire in two or three years. We would not take Social Security until probably 67 because we will not need it when we retire. But would our Social Security benefits be less because we do not work for those five years before applying to Social Security? Is Social Security affected at all by the last few years of income or simply by the total lifetime deposits into the system?

Answer: Your Social Security benefits are based on your 35 highest-earning years. So if you’ve worked more than 35 years, a few years at the end of your career in which you earn less or don’t earn anything at all shouldn’t affect your benefits.

While you’re researching your options for claiming Social Security, check out the “claim now, claim more later” strategy that would allow one of you to claim spousal benefits while allowing his or her own benefit to grow. It’s one of a number of strategies available to married couples that can significantly increase the amount of Social Security benefits over a lifetime. Another important factor to consider is that one of you is likely to survive the other, perhaps by many years, and will have to get by on a single check. You should make sure that check is as large as it can be to lessen the chances the survivor will face poverty in old age. You can find more information about Social Security claiming strategies at the AARP site (aarp.org).

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  1. Some links to the AARP articles would be nice.

  2. Re. FICO scores: My score has for many years been 825, even after I retired. Now, suddenly, it is 795 for no obvious reason, even thou’ I do the same thing as always – using one credit card that I pay off every month. This card (Discover) shows my FICO score whenever I want to see it. I have no outstanding debts at my age. What might be the cause of my lower score?

    • A strong wind from the east? Seriously, once your scores get that high, they can shift around for any reason or no apparent reason. The most likely culprit is that you charged more than usual on that one card. One solution is to get another card and spread your charges across two accounts instead of one.