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7 Things You Should Do Before Claiming Social Security

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It’s never too early to start planning for retirement.

Even if you don’t plan to have a traditional retirement, it’s a good idea to consider how you’ll manage income as you age.

“I’d like to work until I’m dead because I love what I do,” says Stacy Johnson, the founder of Money Talks News. “But I’ll want to cut back at some point, and my Social Security strategy is a part of that.”

As you put together your own Social Security strategy, the following are some things you should do before applying for benefits.

1. Create a Social Security account

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Want to stay on top of your Social Security situation? Your online Social Security record, called a my Social Security account, is your starting point.

As long as you’re at least 18 and have a Social Security number, email address and mailing address, you can create an account. In fact, the sooner the better, as we explain in “7 Perks of Having a Social Security Account Online.”

Among other things, you can use your account to:

  • Receive personalized estimates of future benefits.
  • View your latest Social Security statement.
  • Thwart fraud
  • Review your earnings history, as detailed in the next section.

To create a Social Security account, visit SSA.gov, the official website of the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA).

2. Verify that your earnings history is accurate

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Your Social Security statement should have a record of your annual income. Check it for accuracy before claiming benefits and, ideally, check it regularly.

The amount of your monthly retirement benefit is based on your top 35 years of earnings. So, if there’s an error in your earnings record, your monthly payment could suffer for it.

For example, say an employer fails to correctly report your earnings for even one year. Your benefit upon retiring could be around $100 less every month, according to the SSA. That’s tens of thousands of dollars over your retirement.

If you find an error in your earnings record, follow the SSA’s directions for correcting it.

3. Understand your full retirement age

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Your full retirement age (FRA) is the age at which you’re eligible to receive your “full” Social Security retirement benefit amount.

Your FRA is based on the year you were born. You can find out what it is by using the SSA’s Retirement Age Calculator.

While you generally can begin getting Social Security at age 62, you will receive less than your full benefit if you claim before your FRA.

On the flip side, if you wait until after your FRA to receive your benefits, you’ll see a bigger monthly payment each month you wait up to age 70.

“I want to make my Social Security payment as big as I can,” says Stacy. “So, I’m waiting until I’m 70. But if you need the money now, you might need to start taking payments at the earliest possible date.”

4. Estimate your retirement income streams

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Understanding your FRA and how it relates to your total income in retirement is vital, says Roger Whitney, a financial adviser and the founder of the website The Retirement Answer Man.

“Get a clear idea of whether you’ll have income in retirement — whether it’s from your tax-advantaged retirement account, a part-time job or some other source,” Whitney tells Money Talks News. “Also pay attention to the tax issues and what your required minimum distributions might look like from a 401(k) or IRA.”

5. Tally up your probable retirement expenses

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Don’t forget to estimate how much you’ll spend in retirement. Consider creating a budget. Break down your needs into monthly costs.

Whitney suggests making sure you consider your lifestyle preferences and potential health care needs. He says:

“Do you think you’ll travel? Do you have a health savings account you can use to cover some of your health costs? How you live your life, whether you downsize or go on long vacations, and your health issues can all impact your costs. Do your best to plan for them.”

Once you know how much your monthly expenses will be in retirement, compare them with your expected retirement income. This will give you a better idea of how much Social Security income you will want each month, and thus the age at which you should first claim benefits.

Whitney recommends sitting down with a retirement professional who can help you chart a course that makes financial sense for you.

6. Don’t forget about your spouse

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When one spouse dies, the other may be eligible to receive a survivors benefit — which is equal to as much as 100% of the deceased spouse’s Social Security benefit.

For this reason, a breadwinner may want to delay claiming Social Security to increase their benefit, and thus increase their spouse’s survivors benefit in the event that the breadwinner dies first. Whitney says:

“Even if it makes sense for you to start taking Social Security, it might not help your spouse later. Especially for baby boomers, it’s usually the wife that has a lower income, and women typically have longer life expectancies. That can be a problem for her later.”

7. Watch out for over-earning

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Be realistic about whether you expect to work during retirement.

Maybe you’ll decide to go back to work full time or take up consulting. If that happens before you reach full retirement age, your Social Security benefit could be reduced temporarily.

The extent of the hit to your benefit depends on multiple details, including your exact age and how much income you earn while also receiving Social Security. An expert breaks it all down in “Social Security Q&A: Will Earning Money in Retirement Reduce My Social Security?

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