Social Security is a simple idea with complex administration. Depending on when you start taking your benefits and how you choose to allocate them to your spouse, you can save or scrap tens of thousands of dollars. Below, you will learn the basics of when you can start claiming benefits. You will also discover strategies which can help you maximize benefits over a lifetime.

The Basics of When, Why and How to Claim

There are many ways to collect some, all, or even more than 100 percent of your Social Security benefit, depending on when you start collecting.

To collect your full benefit, you should start claiming at your full retirement age. For people born between 1943 and 1954, the retirement age is 66. For those born in 1955 and beyond, the retirement age is 67.

To claim a partial benefit, you need to be 62. Claimants aged between 62 and retirement age can receive 75 percent of their Social Security benefit. Alternatively, people who do not claim their benefit between retirement age and age 70 receive an 8 percent increase to their benefit for every year they wait to claim.

Married claimants who are of retirement age can also claim up to 50 percent of their spouse’s benefit. If they are between age 62 and retirement age, they can claim their spouse’s benefit at a 30 percent reduction. Widows and widowers can receive a survivor’s benefit in the same amount received by their late spouse.

Divorced spouses can qualify for survivor benefits under certain conditions. It does not matter if your ex-spouse remarried, but if you remarry before age 60 you are disqualified from receiving survivor benefits unless your remarriage ends in death, divorce, or annulment before your ex-spouse dies. You must also be 60 years of age (50 if claiming disability benefits) or care for your ex-spouse’s child aged 16 or less who receives Social Security benefits under your ex-spouse’s record. Finally, if you are already eligible for Social Security benefits that are higher than your ex-spouse’s you are not eligible to collect a survivor benefit.

Recommended Strategies to Maximize Benefits

Waiting until 70 to collect your benefit is the best strategy for maximizing it. Financially, people are in greater danger of living too long instead of dying too soon, so taking Social Security benefits early should not be done unless you genuinely need them at 62 or 66. The Social Security program calculates benefits to cover payments to men’s and women’s expected lifespans, 83 and 85, respectively. However, there is a 61 percent chance that one spouse will live to at least 87. Delaying a claim until 70 yields higher lifetime benefits, which can help protect against inflation after retirement.

Married couples have some additional strategies to maximize their lifetime Social Security wealth. First, they can claim and switch. For example, if one spouse is still working while the other is not, the non-working spouse can start collecting Social Security at 62 if the other spouse is of full retirement age. This is because the retirement-aged spouse is entitled to collect half the other spouse’s Social Security benefit (this is called a restricted application). Meanwhile, because the retirement-aged spouse is not taking his own benefit, it will continue to grow until he reaches 70, at which time his spouse can claim half of his higher benefit, to which she also has survivorship rights to.

Next, they can file and suspend. The basic idea is that when one spouse reaches 66, she can file for benefits and immediately suspend them so they will continue to grow by 8 percent per year. Meanwhile, her spouse can file for spousal benefits on her account and receive 50 percent of them. By the time she reaches 70, her account will still have grown even though it was drawn on by the spouse. Meanwhile, the spouse’s own account has grown, ensuring that they can both collect more money when they switch back to their own benefits. Some people claim their Social Security benefits as early as possible for the pleasure of having extra money each month. While it might be tempting to put that extra money toward a cruise or a new television you have been eyeing, the temptation is not worth all the money you could save with just a few extra years of managing on your normal income, something you have already become accustomed to.