When deciding to file for Social Security retirement or survivor benefits, it’s not as simple as just picking an age or taking them as soon as possible, and it is definitely not something to be taken lightly, since the decision will impact your lifetime benefits. It is important to factor in such things as your retirement lifestyle goals, age at retirement, alternative income sources, other assets, and marital status. Due to its complexity and the ramifications of this important decision, we feel that there are a number of areas in which planning can be used to provide clarity around your decision process.

Determine Your Goals

The most basic goal when determining an optimal claiming strategy is to maximize lifetime benefits. Delayed retirement credits are awarded for waiting beyond your full retirement age, and they represent one of the easiest ways to maximize your benefits. In particular, having at least the higher earning spouse delay until age 70 (when the delayed retirement credits cease) ensures the surviving spouse will have the highest possible survivor benefit.

These credits also play a vital role in the “file and suspend” strategy. In this advanced claiming method, the higher earner files for benefits but immediately suspends that request, which allows the spouse to file a restricted claim for spousal benefits only. At age 70, both could then file a claim on their own records that have gotten the benefit of delayed retirement credits. We find this strategy to be one of the most advantageous for clients, but it depends on the age gap and earnings gap between the two spouses.

Making a plan that works for you

Social Security planning is not only beneficial for married couples. Singles, widows, and divorcées can all benefit from knowing their options and navigating the countless rules associated with drawing Social Security retirement or survivor benefits. For example, if you are divorced and were married for at least 10 years, you can potentially draw on your ex-spouse’s record without impacting his or her benefit regardless of whether your ex has started drawing benefits. You would then need to decide when to begin and whether to draw on your own record, your ex’s record, or some combined strategy. Further complication arises if you are considering getting remarried, because you would lose the option of drawing on an ex’s record if you remarry, but you would then gain the option of drawing on your new spouse’s record after a period time. Multiple divorces or deaths of spouses or ex-spouses provide even more scenarios to consider.

A common dilemma we work through is deciding whether it makes sense to start drawing Social Security retirement benefits while still working. If you begin drawing prior to full retirement age while employed, those benefits could be heavily reduced if you earn above certain thresholds, so we generally encourage people to wait at least until their full retirement age when this reduction goes away, unless of course the extra income is absolutely necessary from a cash flow standpoint. A portion of Social Security benefits can also be taxable when your income is above certain levels, so this factor should also be given consideration when deciding to draw benefits while still employed.

Work with a professional

As you can probably tell, the intricacies of Social Security are complicated and can have lifelong implications if you make a rash decision. It is important to work with professionals who are well versed on the financial implications of Social Security decisions in order to weigh all of your options. FinTrust will work alongside you to ensure that you make an informed decision about your retirement or survivor benefits based on your unique financial situation.


Jonathan E. Stano, CFP® is the Director of Financial Planning at FinTrust Investment Advisors located at the Greenville, SC office. For more information, call 864-288-2849 or e-mail jstano@fintrustadvisors.com. The information contained herein has been obtained from sources considered reliable, but its accuracy and completeness are not guaranteed. The material has been prepared for information purposes and is not a solicitation or an offer to buy any security or instrument or to participate in any trading strategy. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Securities offered through FinTrust Brokerage Services, LLC.