10 Ways to Maximize Your Social Security Retirement Benefits

Social Security wasn’t meant to be a primary source of income for retirees when it was first created in 1935. It sought to provide an umbrella of protection for people who couldn’t save enough for retirement. Most Americans didn’t think much about Social Security, perhaps because they were living shorter lives and relying on guaranteed incomes.

Nowadays, however, you might wonder how you can increase your Social Security retirement benefits. In fact, you may be able to double or even triple your monthly checks. Read on for potential strategies available to you.

Simple Strategies to Boost Your Retirement Benefits

To help you get the most out of your Social Security retirement benefits, you can use more than one of the following strategies, though some of them have conditions regarding who can use them:

1. Work at Least 35 Years

How much you get from Social Security depends on the years during which you earn the most money. Your payout decreases if you haven’t worked for at least 35 years.

If you work for more than 35 years, a year with higher earnings will cancel out a year with lower earnings when figuring out your Social Security income. (Read more on how the Social Security Administration, or SSA, calculates retirement benefits.)

2. Work Until Your Full Retirement Age

You can file for benefits payments as early as age 62. Yet early retirement means getting smaller monthly payments from Social Security. Your full retirement age will vary depending on the year you were born.

For example, for people born after 1960, full retirement age is 67 years. You’ll always incur a penalty if you claim before you reach your full retirement age.

Note that if you file for Social Security before you reach full retirement age and then keep working, you might not get all your benefits immediately.

Anyone under full retirement age who gets Social Security retirement benefits and makes more than $21,240 in 2023 will have $1 taken out of their check for every $2 they make over the cap. The cap will increase to $22,320 in 2024. The year you’ll reach full retirement age, the most you can earn goes up to $56,520 (in 2023), and the penalty goes down to $1 being taken out for every $3 you earn over the cap.

Once you reach full retirement age, however, you can work and get Social Security without a penalty. The SSA will recalculate your benefits to account for delayed past benefit payments and continued earnings.

3. Delay Claiming Social Security Until You’re 70

You don’t have to claim your Social Security benefit immediately if you don’t need the money. If you delay your payments past your full retirement age and wait longer, you may become eligible for delayed retirement credits that increase your monthly payment. Eventually, you may get more each month.

Every year until age 70, payments will increase by about 8 percent. After that, waiting to sign up for Social Security won’t benefit you in any way.

For example, if you are 67 and can start getting $1,000 a month from Social Security, you could get $1,240 a month if you wait until you turn 70. These higher payments will continue for the rest of your life, and every year, they rise to help in keeping up with inflation.

Many financial planners suggest their clients use other financial resources, such as retirement funds, if that allows them to delay filing for Social Security.

SSA workers sometimes tell people wrongly that they can’t suspend their payouts; visit the SSA website to get the facts.

4. Get Social Security Benefits for Your Spouse

If you’re married, there are also strategies that may allow you to get more out of Social Security.

Spouses who don’t make as much money as their partner might get more from a spousal benefit than from their own retirement benefit. You can get up to half of what the person who makes more money receives when they reach full retirement age.

The spouse making more money must receive retirement benefits in order for their partner to get a spousal benefit. (Learn more about how the SSA calculates these benefits and its other requirements.)

When couples decide how to use Social Security, they should consider the benefits for a surviving spouse. A widow or widower may be able to get survivor payments as a surviving spouse.

Suppose the benefit amount from the deceased spouse is greater than the surviving spouse’s current benefit. In that case, the surviving spouse may be able to get the deceased partner’s survivor benefit while their own benefit grows. At a later age, the surviving spouse can switch to their own benefit.

It can be complicated to coordinate benefits with a spouse. You might want to use a Social Security claiming calculator to determine your choices. You can pay for services such as Social Security Solutions or Maximize My Social Security; or, use AARP’s free calculator.

5. Investigate Divorced Spousal Benefits

If you’re not married right now but were previously married for at least 10 years, you may qualify for spousal benefits based on your ex-spouse’s work record.

Benefits can be up to half of the worker’s total retirement payout. You must be at least 62 years old to access these benefits, and you don’t have to be receiving a benefit of your own. (This differs from regular spousal benefits, where the primary worker usually has to apply before the spouse can get anything.) However, if you remarry, divorced spousal benefits stop.

If your ex-spouse died and you were married for at least 10 years, you may get up to 100 percent of their survivor benefits.

You can get divorced survivor benefits even after getting married again if you are 60 or older (or 50 or older if you have a disability). You may also be able to receive these benefits at any age if you’re caring for your ex’s child who is under age 16 or disabled (in this case, you need not have been married for 10 years). People getting survivor benefits can switch to their own benefits later if they are bigger; the same goes for the other way around.

Survivor benefits are based on how much your ex was getting or how much they would have received at full retirement age. (If your ex delayed starting benefits until after the full retirement age, the delayed retirement credit is added to the survivor benefit.)

Again, if you claimed benefits before you reached full retirement age, your payouts will be lower.

6. Look into Children’s Benefit Payments

Suppose you are retired, get Social Security benefits, and have dependent children under age 19. In that case, your children may be able to collect Social Security payments based on your work record. Those who are eligible may get up to half of a parent’s full retirement income, up to certain limits, each year.

Usually, eligible kids must be younger than 18, single, in full-time high school until 19 years old, or have incurred a serious disability before they turned 22.

Keep in mind that a family maximum limits how much a family can get based on the earnings record of one worker. The most a family can receive is between 150 percent and 188 percent of a worker’s monthly payout at full retirement age. If your total family benefits exceed the limit, the worker would still get a full check, but the payment would decrease for the kids.

Family benefits, like child and spousal benefits, are subject to Social Security’s earnings test. If the primary worker gets benefits early but still works, the payout may be cut or even removed.

7. Earn More if Possible

Whether you ask for a raise or secure a side job, earning more money may help protect you in the long run against risks like market instability, inflation, and taxes. If your wages consistently meet what the SSA refers to as the maximum taxable earnings, it will not tax you beyond that amount.

In 2023, this maximum taxable earnings cap is $160,200. Every year, the limit adjusts; in 2024, the limit will rise to $168,600. Let’s say your wages met the maximum taxable earnings limit for 35 years and you also held off on filing for Social Security until full retirement age. You would likely be among the few retirees to qualify for Social Security’s highest possible benefit payout.

This may not prove achievable for many workers. That’s why it’s crucial to pursue any number of other strategies that can help boost your retirement income.

For example, waiting until full retirement age to file means you’ll be paying more Social Security tax over time. Paying a bit more in taxes could later lead to a steady stream of higher income that considers inflation and helps to settle debt, pay for education, and meet household emergencies.

8. Lower Your Social Security Taxes

You may need to pay federal income taxes on some of your Social Security in retirement.

If your annual combined income is between $25,000 and $34,000 (or between $32,000 and $44,000 for a couple), you may have to pay taxes on up to 50 percent of your Social Security benefit. If your combined income totals more than $34,000 ($44,000 for a couple), up to 85 percent of your benefits may be taxable.

To get the most out of your retirement income and lower these taxes, there are plans you can pursue ahead of time to help reduce your combined income. For example, this might include having a Roth IRA from which to withdraw income, tax free, during retirement. At a certain age, you may also consider making a charitable donation from your IRA. A qualified financial planner can assist you in figuring out a range of strategies that will best suit your situation.

9. Withdraw Your Social Security Application

You may not have realized that filing early for Social Security would ultimately reduce your benefits. Within the first year after applying for Social Security, you can change your mind and request to withdraw your application. You must do so in writing and pay back all the benefits you’ve earned. Note that you can only do this once.

Withdrawing your application is not the same as suspending your benefit. Once you hit full retirement age, you can suspend your benefits anytime by contacting the SSA.

10. Look Over Your Records

The SSA keeps a record of your Social Security earnings. You can sign up for a MySocialSecurity account to access your statements each year. You can use your W-2 form, tax return, or pay stub to check your earnings history. Check your records and verify their accuracy. If you need help navigating Social Security benefits, visit the SSA website, call the SSA at 800-772-1213 on weekdays.

At Wenzel Bennett & Harris, P.C., we often work with clients to review their social security benefits in the context of estate planning and planning for Long Term Health care. You may call us at (989) 356-6128 to schedule a consultation, which is the first step to getting your estate plan or long term health care plan in order.

If you have specific questions about your situation or would like to learn more, reach out to the team at WBH here.

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