Social Security won’t provide all of the income you’ll need to live comfortably in retirement, and it was never created for that purpose. Social Security benefits make up about 33% of retirees’ income, so understanding Social Security can help you be prepared for when you retire. To consider Social Security in your retirement plan, you should know how it can enhance your benefits and how much income you may need from other sources to be financially comfortable in retirement, especially if a portion of your benefits is subject to taxes.
The basic concept of Social Security means that, during working years, all employees, employers, and self-employed workers pay Social Security taxes, which are used to fund the program.
UNDERSTAND SOCIAL SECURITY
Social Security is part of the retirement plan for many American workers. Nearly 9 out of 10 people age 65 and older receive Social Security benefits. Knowing how the Social Security system works will help you be prepared when you retire.
How do you qualify for retirement benefits?
When you work and pay Social Security taxes, you get “credits” for Social Security benefits. Credits are equivalent to full quarters of work. You earn credit for each quarter of your working life. For example, if you work for 1 full year, you have earned a total of 4 credits. The number of credits you need to get retirement benefits depends on when you were born. For example, if you were born in 1929 (or later) you need 40 credits (or 10 years of work) to be eligible for benefits.
How much will your retirement benefit be?
- Your payment of benefits depends on how much you have earned during your working career. The size of your basic monthly Social Security benefit (what Social Security calls the primary insurance amount, or “PIA”) will depend on a variety of factors. These range from the number of years you have worked and your average earnings over the 35 years. your highest income up to the date you will start cashing checks
- Higher lifetime earnings result in higher benefits. If there were some years when you didn’t work or had low earnings, your benefit amount could be lower than what you would get if you had worked consistently. This is directly related to the amount of Social Security you have contributed.
- The age at which you decide to retire also affects your benefit. You can choose to retire early, usually at age 62, which reduces the benefit you would earn at full retirement age. For example, Social Security indicates that your benefits in early retirement would be 25% lower than what you would receive at full retirement age.
- You can also choose to work beyond your full retirement age. If you choose to do so, it may increase your future benefits. If you delay retirement, each year you work adds another year of earnings to your Social Security record and increases your lifetime earnings. By delaying your retirement age to age 70, you are eligible for maximum benefits.
- Generally, you must have paid Social Security taxes for at least 10 years to qualify for your own Social Security benefits. However, if you worked a shorter amount of time, you may be able to collect benefits through your spouse or as a dependent surviving parent—age 62 or older—of an adult eligible child.
- Social Security benefits replace approximately 20% to 30% of pre-retirement income for the average person. However, as your income increases, benefits replace a progressively smaller percentage, so Social Security may only replace 15% of your pre-retirement income or much less.
- The Online Retirement Calculator provides an immediate and personalized estimate of retirement benefits to help you plan for retirement. The calculator will also allow you to create scenarios to compare retirement dates and options, and projected future income.
If you have medical conditions that require you to retire early, you may want to contact Social Security to determine your eligibility for Social Security disability benefits.
How do I decide when to retire?
Choosing when to retire is an important and personal decision, depending on your personal needs and lifestyle. No matter what age you retire, contact Social Security early to learn about your elections and options to ensure you make the best decision. Sometimes your choice of a month for retirement could mean higher benefit payments for you and your family.
You can start cashing Social Security checks at age 62, but your benefit will be lower if you haven’t reached “full retirement age,” according to Social Security.
Your full retirement age is:
- Age 66 if born between 1943 and 1954
- Between 66 and 67 years old if born between 1955 and 1959
- Age 67 if born in 1960 or later¹
There are special considerations and benefits for widows, widowers, spouses (current and former), children, and disabled dependents. You should talk to Social Security to understand how the rules might apply to your situation. Due to your considerations and circumstances, it is important to contact Social Security to better understand your benefit options. For example, if you are divorced, have been married for more than 10 years, or have an unmarried child under the age of 18, benefits may vary. These are just two examples of how benefits might change based on circumstances.
You may be wondering if you are planning and preparing properly; Ballpark E$timate is an easy-to-use, interactive tool that helps you quickly identify approximately how much you need to save to fund your retirement. Ballpark E$timate includes assumptions for projected income and Social Security benefits understandably based on savings. Creating a long-term plan can help you plan for a strong financial future.
How do you apply for Social Security retirement benefits?
You can apply online, by phone, or by visiting your local Social Security office. Depending on your circumstances, you will need some or all of the following documents:
- Your Social Security number
- your birth certificate
- Your W2 forms or your income tax return from last year
- Your military discharge documents (if applicable)
- Your spouse’s birth certificate and Social Security number if you are applying for benefits
- Your children’s birth certificate and Social Security number if you are applying for benefits
- If you were not born in the US, proof of citizenship
- The name, routing number, and account number of the financial institution for direct deposit of the monthly benefit
Will I have to pay taxes on profits?
About 40% of people who get Social Security have to pay income taxes on their benefits. At the beginning of each year, you will receive a Form SSA-1099 (similar to a W2) from Social Security showing the number of benefits you received during the previous year. You will use this form when you complete your income tax returns to find out if you owe taxes on your benefits. While your Social Security may not have to withhold federal taxes, you may find it easier than making quarterly estimated tax payments.
How might my benefits change?
If you get a pension from work that you paid Social Security taxes on, this pension will not affect your Social Security benefits. However, if you get a pension from work not covered by Social Security (for example, the federal civil service, some state or local government jobs, or a job in a foreign country), your Social Security benefit may be reduced depending on your age.
BENEFITS FOR SPOUSES AND SURVIVORS
You may be able to receive Social Security spousal benefits if:
- You are at least 62 years old, and
- Your spouse or former spouse is receiving or is eligible to receive Social Security disability or retirement benefits.
if you are married
if you are divorced
Your next steps
Also, meet with your financial advisor to discuss the best time for you (and your spouse, if married) to start cashing monthly Social Security checks. It’s a conversation that can bear fruit for the rest of your life.