Simple ways to maximize your Social Security benefits

Social Security applicants now have fewer filing options than they had in the past, but there are still some strategies that can help you maximize your benefits for yourself and your loved ones.

The first thing you need to understand about Social Security is that when you file for one type of benefit, such as a spousal benefit, the Social Security Administration will deem you to have filed for every type of benefit for which you're eligible, including spousal, family, or individual benefits. This means that you can no longer file for just one type of benefit if you're eligible to receive at least two types of benefits. It will also begin paying you an amount that is approximately equal to the largest of these benefits unless you opt to suspend your benefits. If you suspend them, then you will not receive payments until a time of your choosing or your maximum retirement age.

The best solution

Generally, the best choice you can make when it comes to maximizing your Social Security benefits is to wait until you have reached the maximum retirement age of 70 to begin taking them. If your full retirement age is 66 and your Social Security benefit at full retirement age is going to be $2,000 per month, then you will receive 32% more, or $2,640 per month, at age 70. If you live to be 90 years old, then you will receive a total benefit of $576,000 over 24 years if you take benefits at your full retirement age, whereas you will receive a total of $633,600 over those 20 years if you wait to take benefits at the maximum retirement age.

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5 Social Security rules you should know by heart
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5 Social Security rules you should know by heart

1. It takes 10 years of work to earn the right to Social Security retirement benefits. 

Eligibility for retirement benefits requires that you earn 40 work credits under the Social Security system. You can earn up to four credits per year, and for 2016, you'll get one credit for every $1,260 in earnings.

The rules for Social Security disability benefits are different and are based on the age at which you become disabled. In general, the earlier in your career you become disabled, the fewer work credits it takes to get disability benefits. However, it never takes more than the 40 credits needed for retirement benefits.

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2. Most spouses and some ex-spouses can file for spousal Social Security benefits. 

In general, spouses of eligible workers are entitled to spousal Social Security benefits. If you've been married for a year or more, then you can qualify for spousal benefits. In addition, parents of minor children can claim spousal benefits on each other's work histories regardless of length of marriage.

For ex-spouses, the rules are different. Only if your marriage lasted 10 years or longer can you claim benefits on an ex-spouse's work history. In addition, if you've remarried, then you forfeit the right to claim spousal benefits.

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3. Most people can apply for benefits at age 62. 

The general rule for retirees is that the earliest age you can file for benefits is 62. But some people can apply earlier. Spouses can get spousal benefits regardless of age if they are caring for a child who receives benefits either because the child is under age 18, in high school and 19 or younger, or disabled. Widows and widowers can claim survivor benefits at age 60, with an option to claim as early as age 50 if the surviving spouse is disabled.

In general, you can only apply a few months in advance for benefits. The Social Security Administration won't accept applications more than four months before the date when you want benefits to start.

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4. Social Security considers your best 35 years of work history.
In calculating benefits, Social Security looks at the entirety of your career, choosing the 35 highest-earning years after adjusting for inflation over the course of your work history. That means that in contrast to the way some public pensions work, earlier low-paying years can play an equally important role in determining your benefit as recent high-paying years.

For those who haven't worked a 35-year career, staying in a job longer can have a measurable impact on benefits. Even if you already have 35 years of work, staying in a high-paying job an extra year can replace an earlier low-earning year -- again depending on how inflation has behaved in the interim.

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5. Social Security rules can change at a moment's notice.
Understanding Social Security is hard, but even worse is the fact that once you think you have a rule down cold, it can change. Americans found that out late last year, when new changes eliminated the file-and-suspend option and restricted application strategy for most future participants.

Because your benefits aren't written in stone, you need to stay aware of potential program changes. That way, you can weigh in with your representatives to ensure that any concerns you might have are heard.

Social Security rules can be hard to follow, but they're important to understand. By knowing these five rules, you can do a better job of managing your retirement finances.

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That said, some people will still be better off taking Social Security earlier, particularly those with shorter projected longevity. Those who have spouses who earn more than they do may also come out ahead by claiming their benefits early and allowing their spouse to suspend his or her benefits until they reach the maximum retirement age.

If you are single, or if you are divorced and were married for at least 10 years and do not plan to remarry, then waiting until age 70 is virtually always the best choice. You can collect a spousal benefit once you reach full retirement age and suspend your own benefit until you reach age 70. If you are widowed, then you can collect survivors benefits at age 60 (or 10 years sooner if you are disabled) and suspend your own benefit until age 70, allowing it to accumulate delayed-retirement credits.

Suspension of benefits and the four-year window

If you were born after Jan. 1, 1954 and you began taking Social Security retirement benefits early, then you can still suspend your benefits when you reach full retirement age and allow them to grow by 8% each year until age 70. However, your spouse will not be able to collect any type of spousal benefit off of your record in the meantime. If you are married and your spouse is at least four years older or younger than you, and the younger of the two of you turned 62 by the end of 2015, then he or she can still file for a full spousal benefit after reaching full retirement age and suspend their own individual benefit until they reach the maximum retirement age.

If you are a divorced spouse who turned 62 before Jan. 1, 2016, then you can still claim spousal benefits based upon your ex-spouse's earnings, even if your ex has elected to suspend their benefits. You can then suspend your own benefit until you have reached the maximum retirement age if you so choose.

Complex issues

If you and/or your spouse does not exactly meet any of the criteria listed here, then you probably need to enlist a professional to help you determine the option that is best for you. Filing for Social Security benefits can be a tricky proposition in many cases, and several factors, such as your job circumstances, other sources of retirement income, and projected longevity, must be considered in order to make the best possible decision. In many cases, you will need to have your advisor run several possible scenarios through a financial-planning program that has been updated with the new filing rules. For more information on Social Security and the filing options that are available for you, visit the Social Security website.

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25 Social Security facts & figures you need to see
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25 Social Security facts & figures you need to see

1. 60.66 million

As of the September 2016 snapshot from the Social Security Administration (SSA), 60.66 million people were receiving monthly benefits, two-thirds of whom are retired workers. A little more than 6 million survivors of deceased workers and 10.6 million disabled persons were also receiving monthly benefits.

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2. 5.44 million

Social Security's beneficiary base is increasing rapidly due to the ongoing retirement of baby boomers, which is expected to last until about 2030. As such, 5.44 million people were newly awarded Social Security benefits in 2015. 

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3. $1,300

It's important to understand that Social Security isn't an entitlement, though the requirements for a guaranteed benefit are not too high. You need 40 lifetime work credits to qualify for Social Security benefits, and a maximum of four credits can be earned annually. In 2017, one work credit is equal to $1,300 in wages. Simply earn $5,200 in 2017 and you'll have maxed out your work credits for the year. Do that 10 times and you'll be guaranteed benefits when you retire.

4. 96%

Based on statistics from the SSA, nearly all working Americans (96%) are covered by survivors insurance protection. Though Social Security is primarily designed to provide financial protection for retired workers, it does provide benefits for the spouses, children, and in rarer cases parents of deceased workers.

5. 90%

To add to the above statistic, the SSA also points out that 90% of the American workforce is covered in case of long-term disability. Since nearly 70% of all private sector workers have no long-term disability insurance, it's good knowing that Social Security has their back.

6. 55%

An interesting figure from the SSA is that 55% of beneficiaries are women. Social Security income is of particular importance to women since 1) they tend to live about five years longer than men, on average, and 2) they're often the caregivers that take care of the kids or sick family members, thus their lifetime earnings are often lower than their male counterparts'. Social Security income can be critical to ensuring a healthy financial foundation for women come retirement.

7. 32%

According to an analysis conducted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), Social Security income has reduced what would be a 40.5% poverty rate for seniors without this added income to just 8.5%. While the CBPP's analysis can't factor in external variables such as how much extra seniors would have saved prior to retiring if Social Security wasn't available, it's clear as day that Social Security is critical to keeping seniors on solid financial footing. 

8. 81%

Based on data from the SSA, 81% of all benefits paid out by the Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance Trust (OASDI) are heading to seniors ages 62 and up. Just 5% go to children under the age of 18, and another 14% to adults between the ages of 18 and 61.

9. 61%

Statistics from the SSA in 2016 show that 61% of seniors rely on Social Security to provide at least half of their monthly income. For elderly couples this figure was 48%, while 71% of unmarried elderly persons lean heavily on the program for at least half of their monthly income.

10. $920.2 billion

The SSA's data showed that $920.2 billion was collected from three revenue channels in 2015. A majority of this revenue came from payroll taxes (86.4%), while interest earned on the OASDI's spare cash (10.1%) and the taxation of benefits (3.4%) comprised the remainder.

11. 12.4%

Payroll taxes comprise the lion's share of revenue collection for Social Security. This tax totals 12.4% of wages (up to a certain point, which is discussed below) and it's typically split down the middle between you and your employer, with each paying 6.2%. If you happen to be self-employed, you're on the line for the entire 12.4% tax.

12. $127,200

There is, however, a cap on how much a person can be taxed by the SSA via the payroll tax. All earned income in 2017 between $1 and $127,200 is subject to the 12.4% payroll tax. Any wages beyond that point are free and clear of being taxed by the SSA.

13. $1,351.70

The September 2016 snapshot shows that the average retired worker is bringing home $1,351.70 per month, or $16,220 over the course of a year. Annual benefit increases are tied to the inflation rate as measured by the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clericals Workers, or the CPI-W. 

14. 0.3%

Speaking of inflation, Social Security beneficiaries are getting a 0.3% cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) in 2017, the smallest increase on record. Social Security's COLA has been dragged down in recent years by weaker energy and food costs, which are sizable components of the CPI-W.

15. 33 out of 35 years

One of the more saddening facts and figures about Social Security is that its COLA has been lower than medical cost inflation in 33 of the past 35 years. The CPI-W factors in a number of varied expenses, but medical costs are a much smaller portion of workers' average expenditures. Seniors spend double what urban wage earners and clerical workers do on medical costs as a percentage of their annual expenditures.

16. $2,687

Social Security benefits are capped at $2,687 per month, which makes sense given that payroll taxes have an annual cap as well. The monthly benefit cap is usually adjusted year-to-year based on inflation. Only a small fraction of Americans have a shot at reaching this maximum payout, as you'll see in the next figure.

17. 60%

Based on data from 2013, as assembled by the Centers for Retirement Research at Boston College, 60% of retirees sign up for benefits before reaching their full retirement age (FRA). A person's FRA is when they become eligible to receive 100% of their FRA benefit. By signing up early, retirees are taking a cut in benefits from their FRA benefit of up to 25% to 30%.

19. 2.8-to-1

As of 2015, the worker-to-beneficiary ratio stood at 2.8 workers for every one beneficiary. In about two decades, this ratio is forecast to drop to 2.1-to-1. In simpler terms, baby boomers are retiring in increasing numbers, and there simply aren't enough new workers to take their place and maintain the worker-to-beneficiary ratio at its current level. This leads to the next point...

20. The year 2020

Based on the latest report from the Social Security Board of Trustees, by 2020 the cash inflow into the OASDI is slated to turn into a cash outflow. In other words, what's expected to be close to $2.9 trillion in spare cash will begin dwindling in 2020.

21. The year 2034

Perhaps the scariest finding of the Trustees' report is that Social Security's spare cash is expected to be exhausted by the year 2034. Assuming Congress passes no new laws affecting Social Security, the Trustees predict that an across-the-board benefits cut of up to 21% may be needed to sustain payouts through the year 2090.

22. 2.66%

Findings from the Board of Trustees report also showed that the actuarial deficit in 2016 was 2.66% for the program. In easier-to-understand terms, a 2.66% increase to the payroll tax would be expected to alleviate all funding concerns through the year 2090. This would mean an increase to 7.53% if you're employed by someone else, or 15.06% if you're self-employed.

23. 56%

It's a fact that gets overlooked by many seniors, but Social Security income may be taxable. Individuals earning more than $25,000 annually and joint filers with income over $32,000 could have a percentage of their Social Security benefits taxed. Not to mention 13 states also tax Social Security benefits.

24. 51%

According to Gallup, 51% of polled Americans in 2015 believed Social Security won't be there for them when they retire. Luckily, this is blatantly false. Social Security is essentially incapable of going bankrupt because it'll always be collecting payroll tax revenue from the workforce. Benefits may indeed need to be cut, but the program will be there for many generations to come.

25. 28%

Finally, a survey conducted by MassMutual Financial Group in 2015 found that just 28% of the more than 1,500 respondents who took its quiz received a passing grade and correctly answered at least 7 out of 10 multiple choice or true/false questions. Only 1 respondent out of more than 1,500 got all 10 questions correct. It's a stark reminder of just how little Americans know about Social Security.

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The $15,834 Social Security bonus most retirees completely overlook
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