The people on the phone at the Social Security Administration will not give you advice that is tailored to your situation. They are trained to just give general information that may or may not apply to you. It is a bureaucracy after all. You can read as much as possible about SS to try to understand it better, but the linked article from Bankrate.com is an excellent place to start. Here are the 7 tips they explain, but I put them in my own order.
1. If you are applying for social security disability benefits, it’s smart to start right away with professional help. That’s because it’s very easy to make mistakes on the form and not stress the real requirements of your job thoroughly enough. Most people wait until their application is rejected and then hire an attorney to help them. You can save yourself a lot of time and headaches by staring with a lawyer to help you fill out the application in the first place. You could get benefits a lot earlier and that will probably cover the cost of the legal fees.
2. Check the chart for the break even point before you decide when to start your benefits. Most advisers say to not take your SS benefits early because you will get less money per month and over your lifetime. That’s good advice for many people, but not for all. The break even point for waiting is about age 79. If people in your family generally live longer than that, it could be good to wait. Then again, you might really need the money earlier. If you are going to collect only spousal SS, you will not get more money by waiting until you are 65; you will just lose the money you could have been collecting since 62. If you will be able to collect SS on your own work history, you could be better off waiting, especially if you will have worked full-time for 35 years or more by the time you retire. You won’t have to decide any of this until you approach the age of 62.
3. 35 is the magic number. SS calculates your benefits based on the average of the best 35 years of your salary, adjusted for inflation in each year. That’s great except for those who worked less than 35 years. Let’s say you worked for 10 years, full-time by the time you retire. SS will average your 10 years with 25 years worth of zeros. That’s going to give you very low benefits and you might want to claim SS only as spousal benefits–you’ll get more money. But if you worked, say 32 years, it could pay to work 3 more years to bring up the average on your 35 years. Also figure what your spousal benefit SS would be to see if it’s worth it to try to get SS in your own name or not. Of course some people have health problems that won’t allow this, but for others it’s worth figuring both ways.
4. Widows and widowers have choices. This follows from # 3, but you have another choice. You can choose either taking your spousal SS benefits as a widow/widower or you can choose to take the SS benefits from your own work history. The good thing is that you can reverse this at any time.
5. Thinking of divorce? Try to wait until you’ve been married 10 years. If you have been married less than 10 years, there is no spousal SS that you qualify for, no matter the circumstances. You could be married 9 1/2 years, but you won’t be eligible for the spousal SS. If you’re close to 10 years, don’t even contact a lawyer or talk about divorce to others until your 10 anniversary has arrived. Strange, but true.
6. Make any changes or requests in person at the Social Security Administration office (listed in phone book) because a phone conversation or email doesn’t guarantee they will do it right. This is a function of SSA being a bureaucracy. The person you communicate with otherwise can easily make a mistake. They deal with so many people during a day that even though they understand your situation they might mark the wrong choice out of habit for the most popular choices. You need to be there to be sure your choice is really the one recorded.
7. Actually number 7 is that you have a lot of choices, and you need to do your homework. And it’s worth your while to click here to view the slideshow at Bankrate.
As you plan for retirement, be careful how you think about your net worth. Click here to read Don’t Let the “Wealth Effect” Ruin Your Finances. It’s important to keep enough money for retirement. Watch out for these temptations!