Waiting to take Social Security has hidden benefits

Dear Liz: When I was 62, I started Social Security and I’m currently saving half of my monthly benefit after taxes (about $750). My decision to take my benefits early was influenced by a financial columnist who suggested that if I started at 62 and invested half or more of it until I reached full retirement age, the lower early benefits would be matched by the investment returns by the time I’m 85. Is this advice still reasonable?

Answer: In today’s investing environment, it’s hard to match the guaranteed annual return you get from delaying Social Security benefits. You may do better investing in the stock market, but there isn’t an investment that can guarantee 6% returns right now, which is the approximate amount Social Security benefits increase annually between the earliest age you can take benefits (62) and your full retirement age (currently 66). The higher benefit you get by waiting is then increased by inflation adjustments each year, making it an even harder target to beat.

That’s not to say it can’t be done. In your case, it’s too late for second thoughts anyway. But most people are better off waiting, if they can afford to do so.

There are other good reasons to delay, even if you’re an investing genius. If you’re married, your spouse would be eligible for a survivor’s benefit should you die first. That benefit is equal to the Social Security check you’ve been getting. A bigger check could make it easier for him or her to make ends meet down the road.

Spouses who wait until full retirement age also have the option of taking spousal benefits first, and then switching to their own benefits later, after those benefits have had a few more years to grow. When you take benefits early, you lose the option to switch.

Even if you’re not married, you can look at Social Security as a form of longevity insurance. A larger benefit could be a big help if you live a long time and spend down your other assets.

Hopefully you understood all this before you put your retirement plan into motion. If you didn’t, then your situation could serve as a cautionary tale for anyone who’s trying to make decisions about retirement based solely on his or her own research. It’s vitally important to get a second opinion from a fee-only comprehensive financial planner. Even the most ardent do-it-yourselfer can miss important nuances when it comes to retirement, and those nuances can have a dramatic effect on your future quality of life.

Delay collecting Social Security for a bigger benefit

Dear Liz: My spouse started collecting Social Security in 2002 at age 63. I am 59, and not working, so my future benefits are unlikely to increase very much, even if I wait until age 70. If he dies before I do, will I get same amount he would be collecting at that time? If I collect Social Security at 62, would Social Security combine our records to calculate my benefit? In other words, should I try to wait or just start collecting at 62?

Answer: Your presumption that your benefit wouldn’t increase much by waiting is incorrect. Even if you aren’t working now, your benefit amount will grow the longer you can wait to apply. That’s true whether you ultimately get benefits based on your own work record or your husband’s.

When you apply, the Social Security Administration will compare your earned benefit with your spousal benefit and give you the larger of the two. Your spousal benefit starts at half of what your husband’s benefit would have been at full retirement age. That amount is reduced significantly if you apply for benefits before your own full retirement age (which is 66 for you, although it rises to 67 for anyone born after 1959).

Also, if you apply for spousal benefits before your full retirement age, you wouldn’t have the option of switching to your own benefit later, even if your benefit grows to a larger amount than what you’re receiving based on your husband’s record.

When your husband dies, you can switch to survivor’s benefits, which equal what he was receiving. Since he started benefits early, however, his checks have been permanently reduced to reflect that early retirement. In other words, if he had waited longer to retire, you would have been entitled to a larger survivor’s benefit.

The Social Security system is designed to reward people for delaying retirement, which is why it often makes sense to do so.