• Peter Newman, CFA

Answers to Your Top Social Security Questions

Updated: Oct 5


For millions of Americans, one key source of retirement income derives from social security benefits. Yet exploring what these benefits will be are not so transparent.

Ideally, retirees should have multiple sources of retirement income. For millions of Americans, one key source are social security benefits. In this post, we will explore answers to commonly asked questions about social security.


When do I become eligible to receive social security?

Americans first become eligible for social security benefits between ages 62 to 67, but monthly benefit amounts depend on how early you elect to start.


Choosing when to begin receiving social security benefits is an important part of your retirement income plan. If you start receiving benefits when you reach full retirement age (66 or 67 for most people) you will receive your full benefit. If you delay receiving benefits until age 70, you will receive a greater monthly benefit. If you collect social security before you reach full retirement age, say at age 62, your benefits will be dramatically reduced. Here is an example:

Your actual benefit will depend on your earnings record.

Social security has a term called full retirement age which dictates based on your birthdate when most people will stop working and start collecting social security. Let’s suppose you start claiming monthly payments of $2,000 at age 66. If you start claiming 4 years early at age 62, you may receive 25% less or only $1,500 per month benefit. This lowers income for the rest of your life. On the other hand, if you wait until age 72 you will get an extra 32% monthly income or $2,640 in this example. 


Whenever you take social security you get small annual cost of living increases, but the best thing you can do is visit ssa.gov to find your full retirement age and create your own benefit estimate.

How do I know if I can collect social security?

You must have worked at least 10 years full time to receive social security benefits at retirement.


What if I did not work, but my spouse worked?

Spouses can claim benefits regardless of whether they held paid jobs, based on their partner’s record. To qualify, the spouse with a work record must already be receiving retirement benefits and the non working spouse must be at least age 62. If the non working spouse waits until full retirement age, they will receive a spousal benefit of up to 50% of their partner’s full retirement benefit.


How do I know what my monthly benefit will be?

Your monthly social security benefit is based on your highest 35 years of averaged earnings.

You can visit ssa.gov and use the retirement estimator to see your personal benefit amount.


Can my social security benefit be reduced?

For individuals with government sponsored pensions such as teachers, police officers, firefighters or other public employees, there is a high probability that your social security benefits will be reduced or possibly eliminated. One way to avoid this is to have 30 years of social security earnings from a non-government source in addition to your government pay. But, your non-government pay must meet an earnings threshold test which is $25,575 in 2020 and increases by inflation each year.


What if I am a widow?

Widowed spouses become eligible for 100% of their partners full benefit unless they also have a job and the benefit they’ve earned through their own income is higher.


What if I am divorced?

If you meet the following criteria below, you may be eligible for social security based on your ex-spouse’s earnings record.

  • The marriage lasted 10 years or longer

  • You have been divorced more than 2 years

  • You are unmarried and age 62 or older

  • Your ex-spouse is entitled to social security benefits

If you have an earnings record with social security, your benefits may be primary and your ex-spouses may be secondary. Contact your local Social Security office to get an estimate, based on your former partner’s benefits, that you can receive as a divorced spouse, Call Social Security at 800-772-1213 to make an appointment. 


Are social security benefits taxed?

It depends on how much you earn while collecting social security. For example, if you earn above $34,000 if single or $44,000 if married you may be taxed on up to 85% of your social security benefits.


How do I apply for benefits?

Apply at your local Social Security office, by telephone 800-772-1213, or online at ssa.gov.

You should apply within four months of the date that you want benefits to start.


Will social security run out of money?

Under current projections, the program should be able to pay full benefits until 2035 when the funds are depleted. After that the program’s income from current workers is expected to pay about three-quarters of scheduled benefits until 2093. It will be up to lawmakers to correct the tax rate or make other programmatic changes to avoid a failure.


What should I do if I am concerned about the possibility of a social security failure?

Save in other retirement buckets such as a workplace 401k or an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) so you are not solely reliant on social security.


I have a very high income, what is the maximum amount of social security I can receive?

The maximum monthly Social Security benefit that an individual who files a claim for Social Security retirement benefits in 2020 can receive per month is as follows:

  • $3,790 for someone who files at age 70

  • $3,011 for someone who files at full retirement age (FRA)

  • $2,265 for someone who files at 62


Final thought.

To plan ahead, keep the following four things in mind:

  1. To qualify for Social Security at age 62 requires 10 years of work.

  2. The maximum monthly Social Security benefit that an individual can receive per month in 2020 is $3,790 for someone who files at age 70. 

  3. If you are healthy and expect to live a long life plus have other sources of income before age 70, you should seriously consider delaying your social security benefit.

  4. Check your social security statement each year to make sure your earnings are properly recorded. You can compare this with the W-2 you receive from your employer. Promptly contact your local social security office to correct any errors.

If you’d like to discuss how social security fits in with your overall retirement plan, schedule a free consultation with Peak Wealth Planning.


You may also be interested in reading:

Preparing for Retirement on a Fixed Income

6 Ways to Protect Your Financial Future

Healthy Life, Healthy Returns

Are you wealthy? Know your Net Worth.


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About the Author

Peter Newman is the president of Peak Wealth Planning. He offers financial planning, investment management, retirement income, insurance and estate planning advice. Peak Wealth is a fee only financial advisor based in Champaign, Illinois.

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