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Social Security Claiming Options for Singles

Single retirees may feel left out of the Social Security conversation, since it fixates on how married couples can make the most of their benefits. But it’s a mistake to assume that there are no claiming strategies to maximize benefits for solo retirees. The fact of the matter is that single retirees need to plan just as carefully for their Social Security benefits as do married beneficiaries.

Are You Sure You’re Not Single?

First, unmarried retirees need to make sure they understand exactly how Social Security defines single. That status is not limited to never-married beneficiaries, since individuals who divorced prior to their tenth anniversary are also considered single. If you are single due to the death of your spouse, you are eligible for widow/widower benefits based on your spouse’s work record, as long as the marriage lasted at least nine months prior to your spouse’s death. (For more from this author, see: Often Missed Social Security Claiming Options.)

Waiting for Benefits

Since single retirees have no spousal work records to claim benefits from, it is up to them to increase their own benefits. There are two ways to increase your benefits as a single beneficiary: maximize your earnings before retirement or wait for benefits as long as possible in order to get delayed retirement credits. Delayed retirement credits offer you an increase of about 8% per year between your full retirement age and age 70.

However, a larger monthly benefit is not the only advantage for single retirees who wait to file for Social Security. In addition, waiting for benefits until after full retirement age opens up the possibility of taking retroactive benefits if you need an injection of cash.

Retroactive Benefits

You are eligible to receive retroactive benefits if you wait at least six months after reaching full retirement age to claim benefits. When you apply for retroactive benefits, you will receive a maximum of six months’ worth of missed benefits as a lump sum. (If you are fewer than six months past your full retirement age, your lump sum will be based on the number of months you are removed from full retirement age). In addition to the lump sum, you will also begin receiving your monthly benefit from that point forward.

There is further good news for beneficiaries who wait more than six months past their full retirement age to claim retroactive benefits. Though applying for retroactive benefits will cause beneficiaries to lose the delayed retirement credits they have accrued during those six months, they will get to keep any delayed retirement credits accrued prior to the six-month time frame. (For related reading, see: 10 Commonly Asked Questions About Social Security.)

As an example consider Carolyn, a 68-year-old retiree who has not yet taken Social Security benefits. Carolyn decides to apply for retroactive benefits. Her full retirement age was 66 and her primary insurance amount (the full benefit she was entitled to at full retirement age) was $2,000. When the Social Security Administration receives her request for retroactive benefits, it calculates Carolyn’s monthly benefit and her lump sum based upon her primary insurance amount of $2,000 + 18 months of delayed retirement credits, or 12%. That means her monthly benefit will be $2,240 ($2,000 + 12% of $2,000 = $2,240) and her lump sum will be $13,440 ($2,240 x 6 months = $13,440).

Suspending Benefits as of Full Retirement Age

Eking out a retirement income can be difficult if you must retire earlier than anticipated or are stuck waiting for another source of income that comes into play down the road. Singles in this position may believe that they must to take early Social Security benefits and accept the permanently reduced benefit as the cost of making ends meet.

However, the option to suspend benefits after full retirement age does give you the opportunity to accrue delayed retirement credits. This system, which Social Security expert Laurence Kotlikoff has dubbed start-stop-start, can help you maximize your benefits. When you apply for early benefits, your benefit amount is reduced based on the number of months you have to go until you reach your full retirement age. If you then suspend benefits once you hit full retirement age, you can start accruing delayed retirement credits based on your reduced benefit amount. Here’s how it would work:

Bob’s primary insurance amount is $2,000. After he is laid off just before his 62nd birthday, Bob decides to take his Social Security retirement benefits as of age 62 while he is waiting to access a pension that kicks in four years down the road. His full retirement age is 66, which means his benefit will be reduced by 25% to $1,500 when he files for benefits at age 62.

When he turns 66, Bob suspends his benefit and waits to take the benefit again until he reaches age 70. During those four years, Bob’s reduced benefit of $1,500 accrues delayed retirement credits of 32%, making his benefit $1,980 per month as of age 70.

Solo Retirement and Social Security

The upside of being single in retirement is you have fewer obstacles and more opportunities for a satisfying second act than do married couples. The trick to making your retirement work for you is to plan ahead for the potential financial pitfalls, especially when it comes to deciding when and how to claim your Social Security benefits. Knowing what options are on the table for you can help you choose the Social Security claiming strategy that will work best for your needs. (For more from this author, see: Social Security Benefits for Dependents.)


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This information is not intended to be legal or tax advice. The author can provide information, but not advice related to social security benefits. Clients should seek guidance from the Social Security Administration regarding their particular situation. Social Security benefit payout rates can and will change at the sole discretion of the Social Security Administration. For more information, please consult a local Social Security Administration office, or visit www.ssa.gov.

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