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Knowing how to increase Social Security benefits is important, since those checks will likely be a major source of your income in retirement.
Unfortunately, many people don’t understand how Social Security really works. They claim too early, miss out on important benefits and fail to use strategies that could boost their lifetime income. Their mistakes can cost them as much as $250,000, researchers have estimated.
Here are eight ways to increase your Social Security benefits.
1. Delay your application
Social Security retirement benefits increase by roughly 5% to 7% each year that you delay between the earliest claiming age, 62, and your full retirement age, which is currently 66 and 2 months and rising to 67 for people born in 1960 and later.
The return you get increases if you can wait beyond your full retirement age. Delayed retirement credits boost your check by 8% for each year you hold off applying until age 70, when your benefit maxes out.
Pro tip: Most people are better off delaying, according to a large body of research that takes into account longer life spans, prevailing interest rates and survivors benefits. Many financial planners encourage their clients to tap other resources, such as retirement funds, if that allows them to put off applying.
2. Work longer
Social Security is based on a worker’s 35 highest-earning years. You may be able to boost your benefit by working longer if you’ll earn enough to replace one of your lower-paid years with a higher-paid one.
People who took time off to raise families or otherwise had breaks in their employment could find working longer to be especially helpful in increasing their benefit. (Note that if you start Social Security early, continuing to work could temporarily reduce your benefit.) Also, a woman’s income may be more likely than a man’s to increase later in life, increasing the potential payoff from continuing to work.
Pro tip: If you start Social Security early, your benefit will be reduced by $1 for every $2 you earn above a certain limit, which in 2021 is $18,690. This earnings test disappears at your full retirement age, so it’s usually best to wait until then to apply.
3. Earn more
Another way to increase your future Social Security check is to max out your earnings as many years as you can. “Maxing out” in 2021 means you’ve earned $142,800 or more, which is the maximum amount of income subject to the 6.2% Social Security payroll tax. If you max out in all 35 of your highest-earning years, you’ll qualify for the maximum Social Security benefit at your full retirement age. That’s $3,113 per month in 2021.
Pro tip: Sometimes self-employed people will try to minimize the amount of their income that’s subject to payroll taxes, but that maneuver can come back to bite them when it’s time to apply for Social Security. Paying a bit more taxes in the short run could pay off in a lifetime stream of higher, inflation-adjusted income.
4. Consider your spouse
Some lower-earning spouses could get more from taking a spousal benefit than from taking their own retirement benefit. Spousal benefits can be as much as 50% of what the higher earner gets at his or her full retirement age. The amount is discounted if started early. Typically the higher-earning spouse needs to be receiving a retirement benefit for the other partner to get a spousal benefit. In the past, higher earners could “file and suspend” to let their own benefits grow, but that’s no longer an option.
When you apply, Social Security will compare your spousal benefit to your own retirement benefit and give you the larger of the two. In most cases, you won’t be able to switch from a spousal benefit to your own benefit later, even if your own benefit would be larger. (People born before Jan. 2, 1954, do have the option of filing a “restricted application” for spousal benefits only and then switching to their own benefit later.)
Couples should also think about survivor benefits when making Social Security decisions. When one spouse dies, the survivor will start getting only one check — the larger of the two checks the couple was receiving. The drop in income from the check that’s lost can be substantial. Couples can help mitigate the damage by ensuring the check that remains is as large as possible. That typically requires having the higher earner put off the start of Social Security, preferably at least until full retirement age.
Pro tip: Coordinating benefits with a spouse can get complicated. Consider using a Social Security claiming calculator to explore your options. There’s a free one at the AARP site, or you can pay for a more sophisticated versions at Social Security Solutions ($20 and up) or Maximize My Social Security ($40 and up).
5. Investigate divorced spouse benefits
If you’re currently unmarried but a previous marriage lasted at least 10 years, you could qualify for spousal benefits based on your ex’s work record. The amount can be up to 50% of the worker’s benefit at his or her full retirement age. If you remarry, however, the divorced spouse benefit stops. You must be at least 62 to get spousal benefits.
If your ex has died and the marriage lasted at least 10 years, you could qualify for survivor benefits of up to 100% of your ex’s benefit. You can remarry at 60 or older (or 50 and older if disabled) and still receive divorced survivor benefits. Survivor and divorced survivor benefits can begin at age 60, or at age 50 if the survivor is disabled, or at any age if you’re caring for your ex’s child who is under 16 or disabled (and in that case, the 10-year marriage requirement is waived). People receiving survivor benefits can switch to their own benefit later if that’s larger, and vice versa.
Pro tip: Your ex must be at least 62 for you to receive a divorced spousal benefit, but does not need to be receiving his or her own benefit. (That’s different from regular spousal benefits, which typically require the primary worker to apply before the spouse can receive anything.) Survivor benefits are based on what your ex was receiving or would have received at full retirement age. (If your ex delayed starting benefits past full retirement age, the survivor benefit is increased by those delayed retirement credits.) If you start benefits before your own full retirement age, however, the amount you get will be reduced.
6. Add your minor child
If you’re receiving Social Security retirement or disability benefits, your offspring may be entitled to a check as well. An unmarried minor child can receive up to 50% of the primary worker’s retirement or disability benefit. This child benefit typically ends at 18, but can continue to age 19 if the child is still in high school. Child benefits are also available to those 18 and older if they are disabled and the disability began before the child turned age 22.
There is a “family maximum” that limits how much a family can collect based on one worker’s earnings record. The maximum is between 150% and 188% of the worker’s monthly benefit at full retirement age. If your total family benefits would exceed the cap, the worker would continue to receive an unreduced check but the dependents’ checks would be proportionately reduced.
Pro tip: Family benefits, including child and spousal benefits, are subject to Social Security’s earnings test and may be reduced or even eliminated if the primary worker starts benefits early but continues to work.
7. Suspend your benefit
If you started Social Security early and decided that was a mistake, you can suspend your benefit once you reach your full retirement age. That will allow your benefit to earn the delayed retirement credit that increases the amount you get by 8% each year you delay until age 70, when your benefit maxes out. You don't have to pay back the benefits you've received.
Suspending your benefit, however, also suspends the benefit of anyone else receiving checks based on your work history, such as a spouse or a minor child. The potential increase in your benefit may not make up for the loss of your dependents’ benefits.
Pro tip: Sometimes Social Security workers incorrectly tell people they cannot suspend benefits. If that happens to you, refer them to this page on the Social Security website.
8. Use a do-over
If you change your mind within a year of applying for Social Security, you can withdraw your application and pay back everything you’ve received in benefits. That will restart the clock on your benefits so you can receive the 7% to 8% annual increase from delaying your application. You can do this only once in your lifetime, and you can’t withdraw your application after 12 months.
Pro tip: Withdrawing your application is different from suspending your benefit. You can suspend your benefit orally or in writing any time after reaching full retirement age. To withdraw, you must fill out Social Security Form SSA-521 within a year of applying and pay an amount equal to all the benefits you and your family have received, including any Medicare premiums withheld from your checks.