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MinistryCPA Special Topic: When Can I Start Receiving Social Security Benefits?

Question:

When can I start to receive Social Security benefits?

Answer:

The average individual is eligible to begin receiving partial Social Security benefits as early as age 62. However, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has defined full retirement age (FRA), the age at which an individual is eligible to receive his or her full benefit, according to the table below:

Source: www.ssa.gov/pubs/10035.html

An individual may also elect to delay collecting benefits to age 70 in order to receive increased benefits. (For the purposes of this blog post, we will consider only an "average" individual; widows, widowers, disabled individuals, and others are subject to different guidelines).

An individual who elects to start receiving benefits between age 62 and FRA may be subject to two separate penalties. First, monthly benefits may be reduced by as much as 30 percent for those who claim at 62. Second, earnings may be subject to an earnings test, and benefits will be reduced by $1 for every $2 earned past the cap set by the SSA ($15,120 in 2013). Once FRA has been reached, the benefit will be increased to make up for reductions  in SS benefits due to excess earnings above the threshold. However, the reduction for collecting earlier than FRA will continue for as long as benefits are collected.

An individual who begins to receive benefits at or after FRA will not be subject to the earnings test, and will receive his or her full monthly benefit with no penalties. Additionally, individuals who delay the start of benefits past FRA can earn delayed retirement credits (DRC) of 8% per year up to age 70. Depending on the length of the delay, this strategy can result in a monthly benefit approximately 30% above FRA benefits.

Based on life expectancy and savings other than Social Security, each option will provide advantages for different individuals. Those who start collecting benefits early will receive a reduced monthly benefit, but will enjoy the income much earlier than those who wait until FRA or after. Additionally, the reduction in benefits will continue for the life of the recipient. Those who delay past FRA will receive a higher monthly benefit, despite waiting longer for the income. 

One easy method of comparison involves break-even points. Those who begin collecting benefits at FRA provide the "baseline" for comparison of the total benefit amount. An individual who begins collecting benefits at age 62 will break even with that total amount at age 77. Essentially, this means that someone who lives beyond age 77 will receive greater total lifetime benefits if they wait to start collecting benefits until FRA. One who begins collecting at age 70, earning a higher monthly benefit, will break even with the baseline total amount at age 81. (The Adviser's Guide to Social Security, 2nd Edition, by Theodore J. Sarenski, CPA, PFS, CFP, and Elaine Floyd, CFP. AICPA, 2013. Page 21)

These general guidelines provide a framework for decisions about when to begin collecting benefits, but each individual's situation is different. Other factors, such as life expectancy, other sources of income, and tax consequences should be taken into account when deciding on the timing of benefits.

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