retirement

When to claim Social Security

When should women begin drawing Social Security checks -- and when should men begin doing so?

For married couples the decision is interdependent, but it has more serious implications for women because 1) women earn less money than men on average; 2) their work histories are spottier because they take time off to rear children or help parents, and 3) they tend to live longer than men.

Social Security basics
The choice is whether to begin drawing benefits as early as age 62 or wait until full retirement age (between 65 and 67, depending on year of birth), or even longer, to age 70. Early claims result in reduced benefits. Those who turn 62 between now and 2016 and draw benefits early suffer an estimated 25 percent pay cut compared to waiting until full retirement age. And those who wait until age 70 to claim benefits get a 32 percent pay increase over their full benefit amount.

These payouts have a break-even point, around age 81, at which point they will have added up to the same amount overall regardless of whether you opted for immediate or delayed gratification. The gamble is, if you wait to take benefits and die early, you lose. But if you wait to take benefits and live to a ripe old age, you win.

Of course, if you decide to wait, you need to have enough resources -- ample savings or a source of income -- that would enable you to hold off on applying for benefits. In fact, if you hold down a job in which you earn more than $12,960 (in 2007), it makes little or no sense to apply for early benefits since the benefit would be reduced by $1 for every $2 earned over that amount.

Issue is murky at best
So what's the best course of action? Experts are divided on the issue. "I believe that more often it's better for the woman to start (drawing benefits) at her full retirement age," says Henry Hebeler, author of "Getting Started in a Financially Secure Retirement" and founder of www.analyzenow.com. In his book, Hebeler paints several scenarios that point to the same conclusion -- that men should wait until age 70 to begin collecting benefits, while women should wait until their full retirement age.

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On the contrary, age 62 is the optimal age for many women to begin drawing benefits, say the authors of the article " When Should Women Claim Social Security Benefits?" which appears in the June issue of the Journal of Financial Planning. However, these authors agree that men should file later for benefits -- ideally at age 69. More about this study later.

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