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By Philip Moeller
May 18, 2015

Retirement experts have been pounding the drums for years about deferring Social Security benefits and allowing them to grow until claimed at age 66 or even as late as 70. Yet average retirement ages have moved little—most people continue to file at or near age 62, the earliest that standard retirement benefits can be claimed, Social Security data show.

Now, thanks to some new research by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, this puzzling contradiction has been solved. It turns out that people are aware of the benefits of delayed filing and, in fact, have been claiming later for many years.

Why the discrepancy in these numbers? In its analysis, Social Security looks at when people file for retirement benefits and does a year-by-year calculation of average claiming ages. This approach works fine during periods of stable population growth, but not so much today.

Social Security’s method fails to account for the soaring numbers of Baby Boomers reaching retirement age. For example, nearly 900,000 men turned 62 in the year 1997, while in 2013, roughly 1.4 million men did so. Even so, a smaller percentage of 62-year-old men filed for Social Security in 2013 than in earlier years. But because the number of 62-year-old retirees make up such a big share of all claims, the average age has remained largely unchanged.

To get a better picture of claiming trends, the Center also used a lifecycle analysis. Instead of tracking the ages of everyone who began benefits in a certain year, such as 2013, it calculated the claiming ages of everyone by the year in which they were born. Looking at this so-called “cohort” data, it became clear that average claiming ages actually had increased far more than people thought.

In 2013, for example, 42% of men and nearly 48% who claimed that year were 62 years old. But only 36% of men and nearly 40% of women who turned 62 in 2013 actually filed for Social Security. “The cohort data reveal that the claiming picture has really changed,” the Center said.

I am cheered by these new findings. People should consider deferring their Social Security benefits and see how doing so would affect their retirement plan. But the key word in that sentence is “plan.” You need one, and it should include figuring out the best Social Security strategy for you, not what’s best for other retirees. Here are the steps to get there:

  • Compare the tax benefits. Our hearts tell us that preserving 401(k) dollars in our nest eggs is essential. But when it comes to spending down those assets in order to delay claiming Social Security, the deferral strategy looks very good. Between the ages of 62 and 70, Social Security retirement benefits rise 7% to 8% a year. They are adjusted upward each year to account for inflation. They are guaranteed by Uncle Sam. Federal taxes are never levied on more than 85 cents of each dollar of Social Security benefits, and most states don’t tax them at all. Compare these terms with 401(k) gains and taxation, and then decide which dollars are most worth preserving.
  • Assess the cost of early claiming. Social Security benefits claimed before Full Retirement Age (66 for people now nearing retirement) are hit with early claiming reductions and, if you are still working, subject to at least temporary benefit reductions caused by the Earnings Test.
  • Weigh the Medicare impact. If you have a health savings account (HSA) through employer group insurance and are eligible for Medicare, filing for Social Security will force you to take Part A of Medicare. It’s normally free but the consequences are not: the filing will force you to drop out of your HSA.
  • Consider longevity risk. Review your family health history, complete an online longevity survey, and estimate your probable lifespan. What does this number say about how long your retirement funds need to last and when you should begin taking Social Security?
  • Think about your family. Will you still have school-age children at home when you turn 62? If so, filing early for Social Security may allow your kids to claim benefits based on your earnings record. This is one case when filing early may put more money in your pocket.
  • Plan for your spouse. Survivor’s benefits are keyed to the Social Security benefits received by the deceased spouse. So, the longer a spouse waits to claim, the higher their partner’s survivor benefit will be. This is a real issue for millions of women who survive their husbands and whose own retirement benefits are smaller than their husbands because they have earned less money in their lives.

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Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. He is co-author of The New York Times bestseller, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” and is working on a companion book about Medicare. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: How the Social Security Earnings Test Could Wipe Out Your Income

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