MONEY Social Security

The Best Way to Claim Social Security After Losing a Spouse

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q. My husband recently passed away at age 65. I’ll be 62 in July, and I’m working full time. I went to the Social Security office and was told I could file for survivor benefits now, but would lose most of the income since my salary is about $37,000 a year. They told me to wait as long as possible to start collecting. My own Social Security benefits would be about $1,200 per month at 62, but since I’ll keep working, I will forfeit most of it. I don’t want to give up most of the benefits. But if there’s money I can collect until I turn 66, I’d like to get it. —Deanna

A. Please accept my condolences at the loss of your husband. I am so sorry. As for your Social Security situation, let me explain a few things that I hope will make your decision clearer.

First off, it’s true that the Earnings Test will reduce any benefits you receive before what’s called your Full Retirement Age (66 for you). However, these benefit reductions are only temporary—you do not forfeit this income. When you reach 66, any amounts lost by the Earnings Test will be restored to you in the form of higher benefit payments.

The real consequence of taking benefits “early”—before your FRA—is that the amount you receive will be reduced. There are different early reduction amounts for retirement benefits and widow’s benefits.

That said, you can file for a reduced retirement benefit at 62 and then switch to your widow’s benefit at 66, when it will reach its maximum value to you. This makes sense if you are sure that your widow’s benefit will always be larger than your own retirement benefit; more on that in moment.

One caveat: if you take your retirement benefits early, the restoration of Earnings Test reductions probably will be lost to you once you switch later to a widow’s benefit. But if the widow’s benefit is larger anyway, this should not bother you.

To find out more precisely what you’ll get in retirement benefits, set up an online account at Social Security—you’ll see the income you’ll receive at different claiming ages. To get the comparable values of your survivor’s benefit as a widow, however, you will need to get help from a Social Security representative.

Once you see those numbers, it could change your thinking. For example, what if your own retirement benefit is larger than your widow’s benefit? It could happen, especially if you defer claiming until age 70 and earn delayed retirement credits. In that scenario, you would do better to claim your widow’s benefit—and perhaps even take it early if you need the money. You can then switch to your retirement benefit at age 70.

These claiming choices can be very complicated. Economist Larry Kotlikoff, who is a friend and co-author of my new book on Social Security, developed a good software program, Maximize My Social Security ($40), which can take all your variables and plot your best claiming strategy. But I’m not trying to sell his software, believe me; there are other programs you can check out, which are mentioned here. Some are free, but paying a small fee for a comprehensive program may be worth it, when you consider the thousands of benefit dollars that are at stake.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His book, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” will be published in February by Simon & Schuster. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: What You Need to Know About Social Security Survivor’s Benefits

MONEY retirement planning

Why Obama’s Proposals Just Might Help Middle Class Retirement Security

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U.S. President Barack Obama delivering the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Congress probably won't pass an auto IRA, and Social Security is being ignored. But the retirement crisis is finally getting attention.

Remember Mitt Romney’s huge IRA? During the 2012 campaign, we learned that the governor managed to amass $20 million to $100 million in an individual retirement account, much more than anyone could accumulate under the contribution limit rules without some unusual investments and appreciation.

Romney’s IRA found its way, indirectly, into a broader set of retirement policy reforms unveiled in President Obama’s State of the Union proposals on Tuesday.

The president proposed scaling back the tax deductibility of mega-IRAs to help pay for other changes designed to bolster middle class retirement security. I found plenty to like in the proposals, with one big exception: the failure to endorse a bold plan to expand Social Security.

Yes, that is just another idea with no chance in this Congress, but Democrats should give it a strong embrace, especially in the wake of the House’s adoption of rules this month that could set the stage for cuts in disability benefits.

The administration signaled its general opposition to the House plan, but has not spelled out its own.

Instead, Obama listed proposals, starting with “auto-IRAs,” whereby employers with more than 10 employees who have no retirement plans of their own would be required to automatically enroll their workers in an IRA. Workers could opt out, but automatic features in 401(k) plans already have shown this kind of behavioral nudge will be a winner. The president also proposed tax credits to offset the start-up costs for businesses.

The auto-IRA would be a more full version of the “myRA” accounts already launched by the administration. Both are structured like Roth IRAs, accepting post-tax contributions that accumulate toward tax-free withdrawals in retirement. Both accounts take aim at a critical problem—the lack of retirement savings among low-income households.

The president wants to offset the costs of auto-IRAs by capping contributions to 401(k)s and IRAs. The cap would be determined using a formula tied to current interest rates; currently, it would kick in when balances hit $3.4 million. If rates rose, the cap would be somewhat lower—for example, $2.7 million if rates rose to historical norms.

The argument here is that IRAs were never meant for such large accumulations; the Government Accountability Office (GAO) looked into mega-IRAs after the 2012 election, and reported back to Congress that a small number of account holders had indeed amassed very large balances, “likely by investing in assets unavailable to most investors—initially valued very low and offering disproportionately high potential investment returns if successful.”

The report estimated that 37,000 Americans have IRAs with balances ranging from $3 million to $5 million; fewer than 10,000 had balances over $5 million.

Finally, the White House proposed opening employer retirement plans to more part-time workers. Currently, plan sponsors can exclude employees working fewer than 1,000 hours per year, no matter how long they have been with the company. The proposal would require sponsors to open their plans to workers who have been with them for at least 500 hours per year for three years.

These ideas might seem dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Congress. But the White House proposals add momentum to a growing populist movement around the country to focus on middle class retirement security.

As noted here last week, Illinois just became the first state to implement an innovative automatic retirement savings plan similar to the auto-IRA, and more than half the states are considering similar ideas.

These savings programs are sensible ideas, but their impact will not be huge. That is because the households they target lack the resources to sock away enough money to generate accumulations that can make a real difference at retirement.

Expanding Social Security offers a more sure, and efficient, path to bolstering retirement security of lower-income households. If Obama wants to go down in the history books as a strong supporter of the middle class, he has got to start making the case for Social Security expansion—and time is getting short.

Read next: Why Illinois May Become a National Model for Retirement Saving

MONEY Social Security

What You Need to Know About Social Security Survivor Benefits

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q. My husband is 10 years 4 months older than me. He began drawing his Social Security benefits at 65 and 10 months. I will be 62 next month. My benefits will be less than his since he was the larger wage earner. Based on statistics, I am likely to outlive him. We don’t need my benefits now so we could wait. But since it’s likely he will pass away first, and I will get his benefits because they are higher, is there any reason to wait to draw my benefits? —Lynda

A. First off, I hope you both live forever. But in the interest of being practical, you need to choose the Social Security strategy that will give you the highest amount of income over both your lifetimes, based on your expectations for longevity. Here’s what to consider:

If, as you say, your husband’s Social Security benefits are much larger than your own, then you will be receiving spousal benefits while he is still alive and survivor benefits after he dies. So you and your husband should figure out the strategy that will provide the best balance of current and future income.

Your spousal benefits will be 30% larger if you wait to take them until 66, which is what Social Security defines as Full Retirement Age (FRA) for you. (This age will rise from 66 to 67 for people born after 1954.)

So your decision is whether to take reduced spousal benefits at 62 or wait four years to take them at age 66. I don’t know what these different amounts might be, but you and your husband can figure them out by signing up for online Social Security accounts that will let you see your projected benefits.

Your maximum spousal benefit at age 66 will be half of what’s called your husband’s Primary Insurance Amount, or PIA. This is half of what he was entitled to receive at his FRA, and from your description, it sounds like that’s when he began taking benefits.

For example, let’s assume your spousal benefit at age 66 will be $1,000 a month. Then, at 62 you will receive only $700 a month, because of the 30% early filing reduction. Even at a reduced level, this will total $8,400 a year, or $33,600 from age 62 to 66. If you waited until age 66 and thus qualified for the larger spousal benefit, you would be getting $300 more each month.

Given these amounts, it would take you 112 months to recoup the $33,600 you would have received by taking benefits early. Your husband would need to live to more than age 86 for this deferral strategy to just break even in unadjusted terms. And this doesn’t reflect what economists call the present value adjustment of getting that $33,600 many years earlier than your full spousal benefit.

Your survivor benefit will be the actual benefit your husband was receiving when he dies, or in your case twice your spousal benefit. So you would want to contact Social Security and switch to this higher benefit as soon as possible after his death.

By the way, if your husband had deferred his retirement benefit from his FRA to age 70, his benefit would have been roughly 31.2% higher than he actually received. So, your widow’s benefit would have been even higher.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His book, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” will be published in February by Simon & Schuster. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: How to Use Social Security’s ‘File and Suspend” Option

MONEY Social Security

How to Use Social Security’s ‘File and Suspend’ Option

Q: Do I have to be 66 (my full retirement age) before I can file for Social Security benefits and suspend, or can I file at age 62, when first eligible, for my wife to start collecting? Second, I know that her spousal benefit is based on my earnings record. I plan to work to age 70 or longer so my earnings base will increase every year. Will the spousal benefit recalculate every year and increase accordingly. or is the spousal earnings base frozen at the time of filing? —Peter

A: You cannot file and suspend before 66—your full retirement age, or FRA for short. If you file sooner, you will have no choice but to begin collecting your retirement benefits. And if your wife files for spousal benefits before her FRA, she will be deemed under Social Security rules to also be filing for her own retirement benefit. Social Security does not pay full benefit amounts to people it considers “dually” entitled. Instead, it pays an amount that is roughly equal to the greater of the two benefits.

Spousal benefits are, indeed, automatically recomputed whenever your annual earnings are large enough to be included as one of the top 35 years of earnings during your life

I don’t know the age gap between you and your wife, or the difference in expected benefits based on each of your earnings records. But in the case of spouses of different ages, you should explore what happens if the younger spouse files for spousal benefits after the older spouse has reached FRA.

Under this strategy, the older spouse (I am going to assume here it is the husband) would file and suspend and let his benefits rise due to delayed retirement credits. As I noted earlier, the younger spouse will trigger her own retirement benefit if she files for a spousal benefit prior to FRA. Her benefits thus will be hit with early retirement reductions.

Still, getting these payments for several years may make sense to you. However, benefits will be greater if she can wait until her own FRA, at which point—because deeming ends at full retirement age—she then could file just for a spousal benefit and defer her own retirement benefit. It will be 76% higher at age 70 than age 62, and 32% higher at age 70 than age 66. If it winds up being larger than her spousal benefit, she can switch to it at age 70 (or even sooner if it makes sense given your income and spending needs).

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His book, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” will be published in February by Simon & Schuster. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

More Social Security advice from Phil Moeller:
How Couples Can Boost Their Social Security Income
Here’s a Smart Strategy for Reducing Social Security Taxes
The Hidden Pitfalls of Collecting Social Security Benefits From Your Ex

Read next: The Best Moves to Make So a Nursing Home Doesn’t Bankrupt You

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MONEY retirement planning

5 Ways to Tell If You’re Really Ready to Retire

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Robert George Young—Ocean/Corbis

You'll have a much better shot at success in retirement if you evaluate your needs—financial and otherwise—before you say goodbye to your job.

Think it’s about time to call it a career? Great. But before you say “Hasta la vista, baby!” to your job, I suggest you go over the five items in my Are You Really Ready To Retire? checklist.

Just to be clear: I’m not talking about “ready to retire” in the sense that you’ll flip out if if have to deal with your egomaniac of a boss one more day. I mean you’re ready in the sense of being financially, socially, and emotionally prepared to make the transition to your post-career life. That’s important to know because if you exit before you’re truly prepared, you may find yourself repeating another famous Schwarzenegger line: “I’ll be back.”

So before you say bye-bye to those steady paychecks, make sure:

1. You’ve thought seriously about how you’ll live in retirement. The planning you’ve done throughout your work life has probably focused mostly on the financial aspects of retirement: saving, investing, tending to your 401(k) and other retirement accounts. But now that you’re in the home stretch, you’ve also got to give some attention to lifestyle planning—that is, figuring out how you’ll live a satisfying and meaningful life when you no longer have a job to provide structure for each day.

Among the major questions you must answer: Do you plan to stay in your current digs, downsize to a new home, or maybe even relocate to a new area? And do you have a solid circle of friends and family that can provide companionship and support? (Research shows that retirees with a good network of friends were almost three times more likely to be happy than retirees who lacked such a network—as were those who had sex more frequently.) The Ready-2-Retire tool in RDR’s Retirement Toolbox can help you sort through such lifestyle issues.

2. You’ve made a retirement budget. Assuming you’ll need 80% or so of your pre-retirement income once you retire may be okay for planning when you’re decades from retirement. But once you’re within 10 or so years of retiring, you need a more realistic estimate of what you’ll spend. You need a retirement budget.

It doesn’t have to be accurate to the penny. But it should be as meticulous and accurate an accounting as possible of the actual costs you’ll face in retirement. If you do your budget with an online tool like Fidelity’s Retirement Income Planner or Vanguard’s Retirement Expenses Worksheet, you’ll more easily be able to compare your actual spending vs. projected spending and factor changes into your budget throughout retirement.

3. You’ve come up with a Social Security claiming strategy. A recent GAO report found that even with lifespans increasing, the majority of people still start taking Social Security benefits before their full retirement age. But that can be a mistake. Each year you delay between age 62 and 70, you boost the size of your benefit roughly 7% to 8%, which can dramatically increase the amount of money you receive over your lifetime. If you’re married, you may be able to boost the amount you and your spouse receive during your lives even more than singles by taking advantage of a variety of claiming strategies for couples.

To see how much you might benefit by delaying benefits or coordinating the timing of benefits with your spouse, check out tools like T. Rowe Price’s Social Security Benefits Evaluator and Financial Engines’ Social Security calculator.

4. You’ve created a plan for turning your savings into regular income. After years of growing your nest egg, you now have to figure out how to tap it for income that will sustain you throughout retirement. The challenge: Pull enough from your savings each year to provide the spending cash you need without going through your stash too soon, while also not drawing so little that you unnecessarily stint early in retirement and end up with a big pile of savings in your dotage when you can’t enjoy it.

One way to meet that challenge is to begin with a modest initial withdrawal—say, 3% to 4%—and then adjust that amount annually for inflation to maintain purchasing power. Another option is to devote a portion of your nest egg to an immediate annuity that can supplement the guaranteed income you’ll receive from Social Security as well as withdrawals from savings. Just know that over the course of a long retirement any number of things—market setbacks, unexpected expenses, higher-than-expected inflation—can wreak havoc with even the best-laid retirement income plans. So stay flexible and be ready to adjust your spending as conditions require.

5. You’ve confirmed you can actually afford to retire. This, of course, is the biggie. Do you actually have enough retirement resources to provide sufficient income to support the retirement lifestyle you envision? The only way to know is to crunch the numbers. You can do that by going to a good retirement income calculator and plugging in such information as your age, the value of your retirement savings, how your savings is divvied up among stocks, bonds and cash, the estimated monthly income you’ll require and how long you think you’ll need that money to last. (I recommend to age 95 or at least into your early 90s.)

Once you do that, the calculator will estimate the probability that your resources will generate your target income for as long as you need it. If that probability is lower than you can live with—and I’d say anything much below 80% is worrisome—you have several choices. You can scale back your lifestyle and spending, postpone retirement until your chances improve, or consider other adjustments such as working part-time in retirement, tapping home equity with a reverse mortgage, or even relocating to an area with lower living costs.

Bottom line: If you’re creative and resourceful, there are any number of ways you can make retirement work. But you’ll have a greater shot at success if you evaluate them before you actually leave your job.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

More From RealDealRetirement.com:

Are You On Track to Retire Right?
3 Simple Steps To Crash-Proof Your Retirement Plan
The Best Way To Invest For Retirement Income

MONEY Social Security

How Couples Can Boost Their Social Security Income

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q. My wife and I started our Social Security benefits at age 62 in 2013, but we later realized that we needed more income. So, we are both going to look for jobs now. Can we stop our benefits if it looks like we are going to make more income than allowed, and start our benefits back at any time later? —Don

A. If you or your wife stop your benefits before either of you turn 66, you will simply be giving up Social Security income. The only way to increase your benefits is by suspending them at age 66, which is full retirement age (FRA) under Social Security rules; that age gradually rises to 67 for those born after 1954. At the point, filers can get higher income from delayed retirement credits by postponing claiming (more on that below).

That said, there are steps you can take to maximize your Social Security income. But the claiming rules for couples are a little complicated, so bear with me, as I walk you through the key decision points.

First, the basics. It is true that if you find new jobs, your additional income may temporarily reduce your Social Security benefits. If you go back to work in 2015, and either of you earns more than $15,720, Social Security will withhold $1 in benefits for every $2 above this earnings limit. (Make sure you understand how the Social Security defines earnings; here’s a brochure that includes this information.)

But these benefit reductions are not lost to you, just delayed. Once you reach FRA, they will be repaid to you in the form of a higher benefit that will last the rest of your life.

At age 66, the right to suspend benefits kicks in. During that time, the benefit will rise by 8% a year, plus the amount of any annual-cost-of-living adjustments. Claimants can restart the benefit at any time, but the delayed income credits max out after age 70, so there’s no advantage to waiting any longer than that.

The Pitfalls of Dual Benefits

You also need to consider the rules involving spousal benefits. Whether you realize it or not, one of you has already filed for these benefits. This is because both of you claimed your retirement benefits “early”—before reaching FRA.

The first spouse to file for retirement benefits will have been treated as filing only for those benefits. The filing by the first spouse enables the second spouse to claim spousal benefits. But that second spouse was “deemed” to be simultaneously entitled to dual benefits—their retirement and spousal benefits.

Very few married couples understand deeming, which ends at FRA. Because most people file for Social Security before reaching FRA, it’s worth going into some detail about the way it can affect benefits.

Under deeming, Social Security gives you benefits that are roughly the greater of the two benefits, spousal or retirement. If you were entitled to a spousal benefit of $1,000 at full retirement age, and an individual retirement benefit of $400, you would end up with about $700 at age 62—the $1,000 spousal benefit after the early retirement reduction. Of course, the agency has a more complicated way of arriving at the precise number. Here is a hypothetical example supplied by Social Security spokesperson Dorothy Clark:

“A person entitled to a reduced retirement benefit (RIB) on his or her own earnings and a reduced spousal benefit on his or her spouse’s record is dually entitled. The person will be paid on two separate records. The person will be paid the smaller benefit first on his or her own record plus the excess amount of the larger one on the spouse’s record totaling the higher amount.

“For example: A spouse at age 62 whose FRA is age 66 is entitled to a benefit of $1,000 before reduction. She is also entitled to a retirement benefit (RIB) of $400 before reduction. The full RIB is subtracted from the full spouse benefit. The excess ($600) is then reduced to $420. The RIB is reduced to $300. The total payable is $720, the sum of the reduced spouse excess and the reduced RIB. Additionally, since both payments are paid from the same trust fund, we will issue a combined payment.”

Although deeming ends at FRA, your benefits are permanently reduced by your decision to file early in 2013.

Suspending Benefits at 66

The spouse who was dually entitled to retirement and spousal benefits in 2013 has the choice of suspending his or her individual retirement benefit at age 66. But whether it makes sense to do this depends on the relative size of those benefits.

If your spousal benefit was greater than your retirement benefit, you can continue to receive the difference—the excess spousal benefit—after the retirement benefit is suspended. The suspended retirement benefit, meanwhile, will rise in value due to delayed retirement credits. Depending on the size of the retirement benefit, it may rise enough to surpass the amount of the dual benefit you were receiving. But if doesn’t, you should forget about suspending the retirement benefit at FRA—just continue to receive the dual benefit.

The spouse who was the first to file for retirement was, as I’ve explained, not considered dually eligible for two benefits. So if this spouse chooses to suspend benefits at FRA, he or she would be eligible to file for just a spousal benefit at that time. This would permit the retirement benefit to increase until it reaches the maximum amount at age 70. At this point, it would make sense to switch to that benefit, assuming it was larger than the spousal benefit.

Whether any of these scenarios make sense for you is, of course, depends on your need for current income and whether or not you can afford to defer Social Security benefits.

To figure out your best course of action, you can set up an account at “my Social Security” and run your actual benefit projections through Social Security’s calculators. (You also could plunk down $40 and get a wider range of claiming scenarios from Maximize My Social Security, a software program developed by economist Larry Kotlikoff, who is a co-author of our new book on Social Security.)

If this is all crystal clear to you, congratulations! Go to the head of the class! I still get confused by Social Security’s complicated rules and I write about them nearly every day.

Best of luck.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His book, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” will be published in February by Simon & Schuster. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: How Younger Spouses Can Get the Most from Social Security

MONEY Social Security

Why Defending Social Security Needs to Be Next on Obama’s To-Do List

House Republicans voted to block a financial fix to Social Security's disability trust fund, which runs out of money in 2016. That would result in a 20% benefits cut.

Since the midterm elections, President Obama has taken decisive action on immigration reform, climate change and relations with Cuba. Now, the new Republican-controlled Congress has handed him another opportunity to act boldly—by leaving a legacy as a strong defender of Social Security.

House Republicans signaled this week that they are gearing up for a major clash over the country’s most important retirement program. In a surprise move, they adopted a rule on the first day of the new session that effectively forbids the House from approving any financial fix to the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program unless it is coupled with broader reforms. That would almost surely mean damaging benefit cuts for retirees struggling in the post-recession economy.

Republicans see an opening for benefit cuts in the SSDI trust fund. It is under severe financial pressure and on track to be exhausted at the end of 2016, when 11 million of the most vulnerable Americans would face benefit cuts on the order of 20%.

The rational solution is a reallocation of resources from Social Security’s Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund (OASI). Such reallocations have been done 11 times in the past, and funds have flowed in both directions. Shifting just one-tenth of 1% from OASI to SSDI would extend the disability fund’s life to 2033.

Instead, House leaders appear to be maneuvering to push through an SSDI fix during the lame duck session following the 2016 elections. Such an 11th-hour package would likely impose cuts to the retirement program, including higher retirement ages and reduced annual cost-of-living adjustments. Legislators wouldn’t have to explain a vote for benefit cuts to their constituents before the elections, and might avoid accountability if changes to Social Security get tacked on to an omnibus spending bill or other yearend legislation.

“I don’t know why this had to be done on Day One,” said Cristina Martin Firvida, director of financial security at AARP. “It makes it much less likely that we’ll deal with the disability problem until the lame duck session—and that won’t provide a good result for American taxpayers.”

Critics say the disability program is rife with fraud, and out-of-work baby boomers too young for retirement benefits are freeloading by getting disability benefits. There’s no doubt that a program the size of SSDI is subject to some abuse, or that reform may be needed.

But SSDI’s real problems are less sensational. They include more baby boomers at an age when disability typically occurs and more women in the labor market eligible to receive benefits. Meanwhile, the increase in the full retirement age now under way, from 65 to 67, adds cost to SSDI, as disabled beneficiaries wait longer to shift into the retirement program.

This throwing down of the gauntlet should send a loud, clear signal to Democrats: It’s time to reclaim your legacy as the creators and defenders of Social Security. A small number of progressive Democrats have embraced proposals to expand benefits, funded by a gradual increase in payroll taxes and lifting the cap on covered earnings, but most Democrats have been spineless, mouthing platitudes about “keeping Social Security strong”—a pledge that could mean just about anything.

Expansion is not only doable financially—it has overwhelming public support. A poll released last fall by the National Academy of Social Insurance found that 72% of Americans think we should consider increasing benefits. Seventy-seven percent said they would be willing to pay higher taxes to finance expansion—a position embraced by 69% of Republicans, 76% of independents and 84% of Democrats.

Congressional Republicans are way out of step with Americans on this issue, and so is the White House. The administration has been all too willing to flirt with benefit cuts as it chased one illusory “grand bargain” after another.

But the unbound Obama now has an opportunity to stiffen and redefine his party’s resolve on Social Security. The president should propose expansion legislation. Democratic presidential and congressional candidates should run on Social Security expansion in 2016 and work to assure that reform isn’t tackled in an unaccountable lame duck vote.

In 2005 a young Democratic senator sized up Social Security politics during the debate over President George W. Bush’s plan to privatize the program:

“[People in power] use the word ‘reform’ when they mean ‘privatize,’ and they use ‘strengthen’ when they really mean ‘dismantle.’ They tell us there’s a crisis to get us all riled up so we’ll sit down and listen to their plan to privatize …

“Democrats are absolutely united in the need to strengthen Social Security and make it solvent for future generations. We know that, and we want that.”

That senator was Barack Obama of Illinois.

Read next: Why Illinois May Become a National Model for Retirement Saving

MONEY Social Security

How Younger Spouses Can Get the Most from Social Security

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q. I was born in 1953 and will turn 62 this August. My projected Social Security benefit is $1,488 at age 62 and $1,974 at 66. My total family benefit ceiling is $3,508. My wife was born in 1970 and has never paid Social Security payroll taxes. She will begin working part-time this year but will probably never earn enough credits to claim her own retirement benefit. Our daughters are 14 and nearly 13.

I’m figuring that it is most advantageous to start my benefit at 62. I’m wondering if I will receive the Family Maximum Benefit or a lesser amount? Is my spouse eligible to receive benefits by caring for our minor children under my benefit? If I visit a Social Security office, will I get accurate information? —Michael

A. Let me take your questions one at a time.

First, I’m betting my definition of “most advantageous” might differ from yours. To me, it’s not just about putting the most dollars in my pocket but about insuring myself against living to a very old age (so I don’t run out of money) and making sure my wife will have the largest possible benefit when I’m gone.

Because your wife is nearly 17 years younger than you— and women typically live longer than men anyway— she is likely to outlive you by at least 20 years. Because she has no earnings record to speak of, you need to think about how she can receive the highest possible income in her old age.

The most effective way for you to do this is to delay claiming Social Security until you’re 70 in 2023. Of course, it may be that your family needs immediate Social Security income. But if you can wait until 70, your retirement benefit will be 76% higher than at age 62 and 32% higher than at age 66. This is due to early retirement reductions for claims prior to your Full Retirement Age (FRA)—66 for you—and delayed retirement credits between age 66 and 70. And these percentages are in “real,” inflation-adjusted terms.

When you die, your wife stands to receive your entire benefit for the rest of her life. That’s likely to be essential income, since, as you’ve said, she’s unlikely to qualify for Social Security on her own earnings record. So, if it was me, I’d break a leg trying to make sure she would be getting the maximum retirement benefit for all of those years.

Now, with apologies for possibly treading on uncomfortable ground, if you are still alive in 2032, she may want to begin taking reduced spousal benefits when she is 62, which is also as soon as she can. The benefits would be higher if she waited until she reached her FRA, which in her case is age 67 (unless Congress raises the FRA, which is possible). This would be in the year 2037, when you would be 84.

Your remaining life expectancy, according to actuarial projections, will be only a few years at this point. And it’s a safe bet that your wife will immediately switch to a widow’s benefit when you pass away. So she is almost certainly going to receive more total spousal benefits by claiming reduced benefits early than by waiting five years to claim a larger benefit.

The Family Maximum Benefit (FMB) is the total amount of benefits that you and your family members are entitled to receive based on your earnings record. But these benefits will most likely come into play when you’re no longer around. The FMB will include a widow’s benefit to your wife and, if your kids are still minors or disabled, and in her care, children’s benefits.

As for the accuracy of information provided by Social Security, I have never seen an independent study of this matter. Not surprisingly, the agency defends its record for providing accurate information. But, with something like three million requests for help every week, even a 1% error rate would mean that 30,000 people would be misinformed each week. To avoid being one of them, I’d seek information from multiple Social Security sources—online, over the phone and in person.

Best of luck.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His book, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” will be published in February by Simon & Schuster. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: Here’s a Smart Strategy for Reducing Social Security Taxes

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MONEY Social Security

Here’s a Smart Strategy for Reducing Social Security Taxes

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q. If I delay filing for Social Security until age 66, can I receive the benefit and continue to work? I’d like to draw Social Security benefits yet keep working until age 75. What are the tax implications of my strategy? —Steven

A. First off, you can always continue to work and draw Social Security benefits. Benefits are reduced temporarily if your outside income exceeds certain levels. But these reductions do not apply for benefits received at age 66 or later, which will be the case with you.

If you work and collect benefits, however, your increased income may push you into a higher tax bracket, which may mean your Social Security income may be taxed. If you haven’t already done so, go online to my Social Security and create an account. You will then be able to see your projected benefits at age 66.

To make an accurate estimate of your federal income taxes, keep in mind that not all of your Social Security income is taxable at the federal level. Social Security uses a measure it calls “combined income” to determine how much of your benefit is taxable, and it’s not intuitively obvious. So work through the numbers carefully—you may need to refer to your most recent tax return to make the calculation.

To determine your combined income, take your adjusted gross income (from your tax return), add any non-taxable interest income you’ve received in the past year, and then add half of your Social Security benefit.

If the total is less than $25,000 ($32,000 on joint tax returns), you will pay no income taxes on your Social Security benefits. If the total is between $25,000 and $34,000 ($32,000 to $44,000 on joint returns), you may have to pay taxes on half your Social Security benefits. People with higher combined incomes may have to pay taxes on 85% of their Social Security benefits, which is the maximum rate.

You also should consider if you can afford to live just on your salary and defer your own Social Security benefits until age 70. This will have two positive impacts:

First, delayed retirement credits will increase your monthly Social Security payments by 8% a year (plus annual inflation adjustments). If you defer for four years, your benefits will rise by 32% compared with their level at age 66.

Second, your tax rate likely will be reduced if you’re only receiving wage income from age 66 to 70. When you do stop working and rely more heavily on Social Security payments, your reduced income may translate into lower taxes on your Social Security benefits as well as a lower overall federal tax rate.

Lastly, if you are single and plan to stay so, you should consider filing and suspending your Social Security benefit at age 66. By doing so, you will have the option of going back to Social Security anytime before age 70 and requesting a lump-sum payment for all the benefits that were suspended. That could come in handy if you face an emergency cash crunch. But there’s a downside: if you request a lump-sum payment, Social Security will erase all your delayed retirement credits. Your lump sum will be valued as if you took benefits at 66, and this also will be the level of your regular monthly benefit going forward.

Even the best of plans could change if you run into financial or health problems, so preserving the right to get a lump-sum payment is a good idea for single persons. For someone who is or has been married, however, spousal benefits can be knocked for a loop if you file and suspend, so think twice about using this option.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His book, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” will be published in February by Simon & Schuster. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: How to Max Out Social Security Spousal Benefits

MONEY

How to Max Out Social Security Spousal Benefits

140605_AskExpert_illo
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: My spouse and I are both 61½, retired in mid-2013, and have earned almost equal income for over 40 years. We can afford to wait to claim — but for how long, I don’t know. We would, of course, like to travel and have enough money to enjoy life while we are still “young,” since you never know what the future brings. That’s the gamble, isn’t it? I did call the Social Security Administration several months ago and a very nice woman gave me this advice: We should both file and suspend at 66, collect each other’s spousal benefits, and then collect our full amount at 70. Then when one of us dies, the other one will still have a maximum payment. Do you agree with that? Patti

A: I don’t agree with that advice, Patti. Let me explain why.

Social Security benefits are 76% higher if delayed to age 70 than if begun at age 62, but delaying benefits can seem like a gamble. As you noted, one never knows what surprises life will bring, or when, so many opt to take the money while they can best enjoy it.

But there’s a reason Social Security is called Old-Age, Survivors, and Disablity Insurance. And among all the changes in the years since Social Security was created in 1935, none has been more important for retirements than the tremendous longevity gains that people have experienced. Old age lasts much longer than it used to, and so should your money.

Many people look at the decision about when to claim benefits as a break-even analysis. How long must I survive to make waiting for higher benefits a winning proposition? We are wired to look at money this way. But if you can, think instead about Social Security as insurance for a very long life. Deferring benefits until they are at their greatest possible level makes a lot of sense when viewed this way.

As for Patti, the woman she spoke with at Social Security may have been very nice, but she did not provide very nice advice. It is possible for one spouse to collect spousal benefits while their own retirement benefit is deferred and rises in value. But two spouses cannot both do this.

The classic approach is for both Patti and her husband to wait to claim until they have both reached 66, which is their full retirement age under Social Security rules. At this time, the one with the larger retirement benefit would file and suspend his or her own retirement benefit, enabling the other spouse to file a claim for spousal benefits and receive half of the first spouse’s benefit. Then, at age 70, both would switch to their own retirement benefit.

This approach, as Patti noted, will not bring in any Social Security benefits for several years. If Patti and her husband need some retirement money sooner, an alternative approach is for one of them to file for retirement benefits now. The other spouse would do nothing.

Then, at age 66, the spouse who had filed at 62 would suspend benefits, allowing them to grow by 8% a year until age 70. The spouse who had done nothing could then claim a spousal benefit at age 66 and, at age 70, switch over to his or her own retirement benefit.

There are numerous other versions of this “start-stop-start” strategy that can optimize claiming choices for spouses between the ages of 62 and 70. This Maximize My Social Security software can run all the various scenarios for your situation and recommend the best option. (The company that makes it is run by Larry Kotlikoff, co-author of my book, but I don’t stand to benefit by recommending it.) The service costs $40 a year; given the stakes, I believe the price is well worth it.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His book, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” will be published in February by Simon & Schuster. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write to AskTheExpert@moneymail.com

Read next: How Your Earnings Record Affects Your Social Security

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