Social Security Has Always Been Complicated. Today’s No Exception.

By Chris Adams

Mary Beth Franklin has been mastering the intricacies of the Social Security system for years. It keeps her plenty busy.

A journalist and certified financial planner, Franklin (bio, Twitter) led National Press Foundation fellows through the blizzard of rules and claiming strategies for maximizing the lifetime government payment due them after years of paying into the system.

People have often likened the retirement system to a three-legged stool: Social Security, pensions and savings.

We should be so lucky. Today’s retirement system, she said, is more like a pogo stick.

“Pensions are history for most retirees,” said Franklin, who writes for Investment News. “Personal savings are often inadequate. Social Security has some long-term financing problems so it’s a bit wobbly.”

Whether Social Security is all they’ll have or just a supplement to savings and pensions, knowing when and how to claim benefits is vital. It’s a decision people are allowed to make only once. There are generally no do-overs (one exception: if you change your mind within 12 months of claiming benefits, you can withdraw your application, pay the money back and restart benefits at a higher rate later).

Social Security offers plenty of ways – and times – to make that decision. People can claim as early as age 62, as late as age 70 – or any month in between. Benefits go up each month they wait.

There are also complicated strategies for when a spouse can claim benefits – either their own benefits based on their own work history, or their spousal benefits based on a husband’s or wife’s work history.

The No. 1 rule: For people who plan to keep working, in most cases it makes no sense to take Social Security benefits before their “full retirement age” (which is about age 66 for workers retiring now; retirement age calculator here).

But there are some reasons to claim early, such as those who are in poor health and unlikely to reach a normal life expectancy. On average, she said, a 65-year-old man is likely to live to age 84, and woman to 86. But half of all Americans will live even longer.

There are also important considerations for some public workers, who sometimes don’t pay into the Social Security system and therefore might see benefits reduced or eliminated.

This program is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. NPF is solely responsible for the content.

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