The easiest way to get higher Social Security benefits: keep working

BY Laurence Kotlikoff  August 19, 2014 at 3:22 PM EST
The best way to maximize your Social Security benefits, says Larry Kotlikoff, is to keep working and paying Social Security taxes. Photo by Flickr user j.o.h.n. walker.

The best way to maximize your Social Security benefits, says Larry Kotlikoff, is to keep working and paying Social Security taxes. Photo by Flickr user j.o.h.n. walker.

Larry Kotlikoff’s Social Security original 34 “secrets”, his additional secrets, his Social Security “mistakes” and his Social Security gotchas have prompted so many of you to write in that we now feature “Ask Larry” every Monday. Find a complete list of his columns here. We are determined to continue it until the queries stop or we run through the particular problems of all 78 million Baby Boomers, whichever comes first. Let us know your Social Security questions. Kotlikoff’s state-of-the-art retirement software is available here, for free, in its “basic” version.

Editor’s Note: Larry Kotlikoff’s column appears this week on Tuesday but is usually published on Mondays. Find a complete list of his columns here.


Jan — Colorado: My husband is 10 years older than I am; he started collecting his Social Security at age 62. I was a stay-at-home mom for 20 years, but I have earned a small Social Security benefit. Can I start collecting my own benefit at age 62 and then switch to a spousal benefit (half of his) at age 66?

Larry Kotlikoff: The answer is no. If you collect your own retirement benefit before your, and not his, full retirement age, ​you will be deemed also to be filing for your spousal benefit. In this case, Social Security will pay you an amount that is pretty close to the larger of the two benefits. Even though you contributed relatively little over the years, your own reduced retirement benefit may exceed your spousal benefit. In this case, filing for your retirement benefit will permanently wipe out your spousal benefit. So, let’s not do this.

“There may be a huge return, in terms of your lifetime benefits, to your continuing to work and pay additional Social Security taxes.”

Instead, let’s plan on your waiting until your full retirement age to collect just your spousal benefit and then file for your own retirement benefit at 70. Depending on your earnings relative to those of your husband, your total check may rise at age 70. The most important thing, though, that I want to tell you is that there may be a huge return, in terms of your lifetime benefits, to your continuing to work and pay additional Social Security taxes. Indeed, I’ve seen cases like yours in which the additional Social Security benefits arising from additional quarters of covered earnings far exceeds the additional Social Security taxes you need to pay.


L.D. — Mississippi: I am 63, soon to be 64. My wife is 62, soon to be 63. She is on disability. I am not taking my Social Security because I’m still working and thought that unless I needed it, I’d let it grow until full retirement age. But my question is, should my wife stay on disability or apply for early retirement? Her disability is not large and she didn’t work a lot over the years.

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Larry Kotlikoff: Your wife is, in effect, already collecting her full retirement benefit. Applying for her retirement benefit now, which I don’t really believe is possible, would just lower her ​monthly check because she’d collect her full retirement benefit reduced for taking it early. What you should probably do is A) wait until full retirement age, and then file for your retirement benefit, but suspend its collection; B) wait until 70 to collect your retirement benefit; C) have you wife withdraw (not suspend) her retirement benefit at full retirement age; D) have your wife file just for her spousal benefit at full retirement age, and E) have your wife start her retirement benefit at 70. This strategy assumes your wife’s maximum age of life has not been reduced by her disability.


Judy — Connecticut: Approximately 18 months ago I sustained a back injury and was granted Social Security Disability. I am 61 and will be 62 in January 2015. My husband is currently 65 and will be 66 in October of 2015. He plans to stay at work until possibly May of 2016. I don’t want to be caught with permanently reduced payments. All the talk of suspending and collecting has me confused. What strategy should we be using?

Larry Kotlikoff: My answer to you and your husband is the same as to L.D. Don’t worry. You haven’t made any mistakes and you are still in a position to maximize your lifetime benefits.


Richard — Washington: I am 84 and my wife is 94. We both have been receiving Social Security benefits for many years. My wife’s benefits are based on her late husband’s earnings. My benefits are half the amount of my wife’s. At her age and health, she may very well predecease me. Can I receive increased benefits based on her amount, as it will be really devastating to my financial survival?

Larry Kotlikoff: Hopefully, you married after your wife was age 60, but you don’t mention whether your wife is eligible for anything on her own account, although it seems unlikely. You won’t be eligible for any of her widows benefits if she predeceases you, so you’ll probably just continue to receive your own amount.


Rena — Ohio: My husband is going to be 70 this year. He’s been drawing Social Security since he was 66 and is still working. In May 2015, I will be 66 and don’t know what to do. Can I draw on his and suspend mine or take my full retirement at 66? I do not plan on working past the age of 66.

Larry Kotlikoff: Do not file for your retirement benefit. And do not suspend your retirement benefit, which requires filing for it (which violates my first “ do not” injunction). File just for your spousal benefit at 66 and wait until 70 to file for and start collecting your own retirement benefit. Thanks to the delayed retirement credit, it will start at its largest possible value.


Irene — Austin, Texas: My husband passed away 11 years ago at the age of 59. I am now 60 and plan on waiting to age 70 to apply for my Social Security. When would be the best time to apply for survivor’s benefits on my husband’s Social Security, or will I even be able to? Our salary for each one of us at the time of his passing was about $70,000.

Larry Kotlikoff: Very sorry to hear about your husband. If your age-70 retirement benefit exceeds your widows benefit, it will probably be best to take your widows benefit at age 60 and wait until age 70 to take your retirement benefit. If it’s the other way around, it will probably be best to take your retirement benefit at 62 and your widows benefit starting at full retirement age. Using first-class, inexpensive commercial Social Security planning software that properly values future benefits the way economists do will give you a good idea of what you need to do.