Nearly 30% of Americans aged 60–69 have less than $50,000 in retirement savings, making retirement insecurity a reality for many.
With so little money available, a large portion of Americans rely heavily on Social Security benefits to survive retirement. But these benefits can be incredibly complex — so it's important to learn about quirks that could potentially alter your benefits at retirement.
1. You can collect benefits early (for a penalty) or late (for a bonus)
The Social Security Administration partially bases your monthly benefits on the age you begin collecting Social Security. The three retirement age levels are:
- Early: age 62
- Full (normal): age 66
- Late (maximum): age 70
According to the Social Security Administration, normal retirement age is 66 — but the agency penalizes people who retire early and rewards those who retire later.
If you choose to retire early, your full benefit is reduced by 0.55% for each month you retire earlier than the normal retirement age. For example, if you start taking Social Security benefits at age 62, then you'll get 75% of the max insurance amount. So, a benefit payment of $1,000 per month would drop to $750. You'll get that reduced amount throughout your retirement and it can't be increased, even after you hit normal retirement age.
Meanwhile, delayed retirement can net you up to 132% of your full retirement amount. You'll earn around 0.7% for each month that you delay retirement, up to the maximum late retirement age of 70. For example, if you choose to retire at age 67, you'll get 108% of your max retirement benefit. Your monthly $1,000 payment then becomes $1,080 each month. At age 70, it becomes $1,320 per month.
2. Survivors benefits exist for widows/widowers and children
The Social Security Administration offers widows, widowers and dependent children a survivors’ benefit if the spouse and/or parent was currently collecting Social Security benefits or would have collected them at retirement, though be sure to research the benefit owed, as it fluctuates based on age.
Most widows or widowers will find that survivors' benefits don't completely make up the lost income. In fact, on average, survivors’ benefits cover about half of the lost earnings the deceased spouse contributed to the household.
There are some additional rules that apply for survivors’ benefits. Surviving spouses who become disabled before or within seven years of their spouse's death can collect benefits as early as age 50. And if you leave behind a spouse and children aged 16 or under, your spouse can start collecting benefits at any age.
Remarriage also won't impact a surviving spouse's ability to collect this benefit, as long as the original marriage lasted for 10 years or longer.
3. You can get benefits based on your spouse's payout
If you're married but never worked, you can still get Social Security benefits based on what your spouse has earned. This is available as either a survivors’ benefit or a spousal benefit. The spousal benefit allows you to file for 50% of what your spouse will receive. You can file for a spousal benefit as early as age 62, even if your spouse has not yet retired. Early, normal and late retirement benefit penalties and bonuses apply to the spousal benefit.
4. Collecting Social Security income (SSI) can impact your ability to buy life insurance
Life insurance coverage is designed to provide financial resources for a deceased person's surviving family. However, if you plan to buy life insurance after you've started collecting Social Security benefits, the insurer may deny your application or limit your coverage. That's because life insurance underwriters typically base the amount of coverage you can purchase on your income — but they don't factor in Social Security income. As such, attempting to purchase life insurance after you retire is not ideal.
The survivors' benefits offered through Social Security may not be enough to help your spouse and family, so it's important to purchase life insurance before you start collecting benefits.
5. Social Security offers a lump-sum payment
If you plan to retire beyond the full retirement age, you may be able to receive a lump-sum payment of up to six months of your expected monthly payments. Different from the $225 special lump-sum death payment, those retiring can get a large payment in the initial stage of collecting SSI.
If you plan to retire at age 66 and six months, for example, you would get the full retirement plus the bonus for delaying an extra six months. However, you could instead choose to take the extra six-month benefit as a lump-sum payment. If your benefit equals $1,040, then you can collect a lump sum of up $6,240 (six months x $1,040).
The downside to taking the lump sum is that you reduce your total Social Security benefit amount. If you choose to take the lump sum at 66 1/2, then you'll lose the late retirement bonus for the remainder of your lifetime.
Seek professional assistance before you retire
As you get closer to retirement, it's important to understand all of the options available to you. You should try to maximize all of your potential retirement benefits, including Social Security. Consider contacting and working with a financial planner who can help you navigate all available options, including employer-sponsored retirement accounts and potential Social Security benefits.
Maxime Rieman is Product Manager at ValuePenguin. Educating and assisting shoppers about financial products has been Rieman's focus, which led her to joining ValuePenguin, a consumer research and advice company based in New York. Previously, she was product marketing director at CoverWallet and launched the personal insurance team at NerdWallet.
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