Figuring Social Security options

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I’ve been using a sophisticated Social Security calculator — Social Security Income Planner — to determine the best way for my divorced friend to take her Social Security.

There are a number of these calculators available for a modest fee that help those aged 50-plus figure out a Social Security strategy that can make a huge difference in their retirement planning. These calculators are particularly effective for married couples, widowers and divorced people who were married at least 10 years. All of these people have the option of claiming spousal benefits.

My friend didn’t work outside the home during her 13-year marriage and has never earned very much since her divorce. Her ex-husband is a very high earner. She is 62 and has no pension and little savings. Social Security will be her largest source of income in retirement.

Here’s how we calculated her situation:

  • If she takes Social Security at 62, she’ll be entitled to $908 on her own account, plus $70 in spousal benefits for a monthly total of $978. If she lives to be 85, the average lifespan for a woman her age, she would collect a total of $335,240, assuming a 2 percent annual cost-of-living allowance.
  • If she waits until age 66 to collect Social Security, she’ll be entitled to $1,263 on her own account, plus an additional $104 in spousal benefits, for a total of $1,367 a month. By age 85, she will have collected $376,571. That’s $41,331 more for waiting four years.
  • If she delays collecting until age 70, her monthly benefit will grow to $1,804, and she’ll get an additional $112 in spousal benefits for a total of $1,916 a month. By age 85, she’ll have collected $400,968 — an additional $24,397 for waiting another four years.
  • But there’s a better way. If she waits until 66 and files for spousal benefits only, called a “restricted application for spousal benefits,” she’ll get $1,395 a month, which is more than she would have received had she filed for her own benefits, plus a share of spousal benefits. In the meantime, her own benefits will grow until she reaches age 70, when she can collect $1,840 on her own record. By age 85, this adds up to a lifetime total of $454,823 — a $53,855 difference compared to collecting at age 70 with spousal benefits.

If you are in a similar position, it pays to get access to one of these calculators and examine the options. My friend found it very comforting to know that a few more years of work and choosing the right strategy could make such a big difference in her retirement security.