10 Tips and Tricks To Maximize Your Social Security Benefits

Maximizing your Social Security benefits involves strategic planning and a comprehensive understanding of the program’s intricacies. By taking thoughtful steps, you can significantly increase the amount you receive in retirement. Based on information made available by the Social Security Administration and Internal Revenue Service, here are 10 detailed tips and tricks to help you make the most of your Social Security benefits.

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#1. Work for at Least 35 Years

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Your Social Security benefits are determined by averaging your earnings over the 35 years in which you earned the most. If you work fewer than 35 years, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will include zeroes for the missing years, which lowers your average earnings and, consequently, your benefits. By ensuring you have at least 35 years of work history, you replace those zeroes with higher earning years, potentially increasing your benefit amount.

#2. Earn More During Your Working Years

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Your Social Security benefits are determined by your average indexed monthly earnings (AIME) during your 35 highest-earning years. Higher lifetime earnings result in higher benefits. Maximize your earnings by pursuing career advancements, additional qualifications, or side jobs. Be aware that Social Security taxes apply up to a certain annual income cap, which in 2024 is $160,200. Income above this cap does not affect your benefits calculation.

#3. Delay Claiming Benefits

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Even though you can start receiving Social Security benefits at age 62, your monthly benefit amount increases for each year you delay claiming up to age 70. For each year you delay past your full retirement age (FRA), your benefits increase by approximately 8%. For example, if your FRA is 67 and you delay until 70, your benefits will be about 24% higher. This strategy is particularly beneficial if you anticipate to live longer, as the increased monthly payments will be received over many years.

#4. Understand the Impact of Taxes

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Depending on your combined income, as much as 85% of your Social Security benefits may be subject to federal income tax. Combined income includes your adjusted gross income, nontaxable interest, and half of your Social Security benefits. To reduce the tax impact, consider tax-efficient withdrawal strategies from retirement accounts, such as Roth IRAs, which provide tax-free income. Understanding your tax situation can help you manage your overall retirement income more effectively.

#5. Coordinate Spousal Benefits

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Married couples can optimize their Social Security benefits by coordinating their claiming strategies. One effective approach is for the higher-earning spouse to delay claiming their benefits to accrue delayed retirement credits, while the lower-earning spouse claims spousal benefits. Spousal benefits can be up to 50% of the higher earner’s FRA benefit. This strategy maximizes the surviving spouse’s benefit, as they can switch to the higher earner’s benefit if it is greater.

#6. Utilize Survivor Benefits

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If you are a widow or widower, you are eligible for survivor benefits, which can be claimed as early as age 60 (or age 50 if you are disabled). The amount of survivor benefits can be up to 100% of your deceased spouse’s benefit, depending on your age at the time you claim them. It’s often advantageous to delay claiming survivor benefits until you reach FRA to receive the full benefit amount. In the meantime, you might consider working or claiming your own reduced retirement benefits to increase your survivor benefit later.

#7. Consider Divorced Spouse Benefits

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If you were married for at least 10 years and are now single, you may qualify to lay claim to benefits based on your ex-spouse’s earnings record. Divorced spouse benefits can be up to 50% of your ex-spouse’s benefit at their FRA. These benefits do not affect your ex-spouse’s benefits and might be a valuable source of extra income, especially if your own work record results in lower benefits.

#8. Minimize Earnings Above the Limit if Claiming Early

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If you claim Social Security benefits before your FRA and continue to work, your benefits may be reduced if your earnings exceed the annual limit. For 2024, this limit is $21,240. If your earnings exceed this limit, your benefits will be dropped by $1 for every $2 you earn above the threshold. Once you reach FRA, these reductions no longer apply, and your benefit will be recalculated to give you credit for the months your benefits were withheld.

#9. Use the Social Security Calculator

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The SSA provides online calculators to estimate your benefits based on your actual earnings record. Use these tools to explore different claiming scenarios and determine the best strategy for your situation. The calculators can help you understand how factors like additional earnings, delayed retirement, or early claiming will impact your benefits, allowing you to make informed decisions.

#10. Stay Informed About Social Security Changes

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Social Security rules and regulations can change based on new laws and policies. Keep updated on any changes that could impact your benefits by frequently visiting the SSA website or consulting with a financial advisor who specializes in retirement planning. Staying updated ensures you can adjust your strategies as needed to maximize your benefits.

Simply put, optimizing your Social Security benefits requires careful planning and informed decision-making. By working for at least 35 years, maximizing your earnings, understanding tax implications, and strategically coordinating spousal and survivor benefits, you can significantly increase your retirement income. Stay proactive and informed to make the most of your Social Security benefits and secure a more comfortable retirement.

Source: Social Security Administration and Internal Revenue Service 

Disclaimer – This list is solely the author’s opinion based on research and publicly available information. It is not intended to be professional advice. 

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