I was talking to a client a few weeks back who said to me, “What do I care? I get a raise at 62 anyway.” He was referring to filing and receiving his social security benefits at age 62 instead of waiting until his full retirement age (FRA). I had to quickly run through a few different scenarios with him and discuss why taking the benefits now instead of waiting may have an adverse effect on his long-term goals. It really resonated with me and made me wonder how many people have the same mindset as that client.
If you’re employed or self-employed, you are most likely paying into your social security benefits. In order to qualify for benefits when you retire, you need to have worked and paid into the social security system for 40 quarters, or 10 years. Your benefit is calculated based on a ratio of your 35 highest years of earnings, using zeroes for any year in which you did not work. There are spousal and survival benefits available, and even if divorced, you may qualify for benefits based on a former spouse’s earnings (restrictions may apply).
Back to the example
Now that we know the basics, let’s jump back to the example I mentioned earlier about my client taking benefits at 62. We will have to make a few assumptions in order to paint a proper picture. Putting aside whether or not there will be a social security system still around when my client retires (that’s a different conversation), let’s assume his FRA is 67 (this is important) and that he will live until 90 (lucky guy!). His FRA benefit is expected to be $24,000 a year, and for the sake of simplicity, we’ll assume no annual cost of living adjustment (COLA). Is this unrealistic? Probably – but there have been three years since 2010 with no COLA. We will also assume he is single and NOT working during the time period discussed, as working while collecting social security benefits can decrease the amount of benefits received.
If he begins collecting at 62 with an FRA of 67, he will have a 30% permanent reduction from his social security benefits. If he takes his benefits at 67 there will be no reduction, and if he waits until 70, he will receive a 24% increase in his benefits.
Breakdown of his monthly benefits
Approximate total payments he would receive over the course of his lifetime
Summary of his break-even ages when comparing the different options
As you can see from the information above, the various break-even points are ages that need to be reached in order for my client to receive the advantage of holding off on receiving his benefits. If he lives until age 78, then it was the right choice for him to hold off his benefits from 62 to 67, and if he lives until 82, then it was the right choice for him to hold off his benefits from 67 to 70.
(I’m not sure I need a disclaimer for a blog post, but obviously the example above was for illustrative purposes and should not be relied upon as a guarantee of benefits. Changing any of the variables above can have a drastic effect on the outcome of the example.)
So what’s the right answer?
It depends. I know that seems like a cop-out answer, but in order to know the right answer there are a host of variables that must be discussed with your advisors. Your health, lifestyle, family situation, and need/desire for the income all become factors that must be discussed and prioritized in order to maximize the benefits that you can receive.
No one has a crystal ball. When it is time to start thinking about filing for social security, you should reach out to your accountant and other trusted advisors to weigh your options.
Joseph DeMartinis is a Tax Supervisor in the firm’s Long Island office. He specializes in taxation of small and medium size businesses, their owners, inpatriates, expatriates, and high net worth individuals.
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