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Social Security Highlights

J Terwilliger 2014
James P. Terwilliger, PhD, CFP®
Retired 2/2022, Senior Vice President, Senior Planning Advisor
[email protected]
(585) 419-0670 x50630

Of the topics covered in my columns over the past years, the one that has generated the most interest and questions is “How can I maximize my Social Security retirement benefits?”.

The issues of most interest are:

  • Do I have a choice of benefits and what are they?
  • What is the best age to start taking benefits?

These factors translate into two of the most important decisions facing retirees.

For those never married, the retirement benefit generally is simple – one’s own benefit based on one’s work record.

The key decision here is one of timing

The decision for married, divorced, or widowed individuals is complicated by options that are unavailable to those not previously married. Timing is a key factor here as well.

The stakes are high. For example, a married couple having average life expectancies can expect to receive between $1,000,000 and $1,600,000 in lifetime Social Security retirement benefits, including cost-of-living adjustments. This translates to a total benefit value in today’s dollars of $750,000 to $1,200,000.

The corresponding numbers for a single person, consequently, are about half.

Most people would never guess that this benefit rivals or may even exceed their life savings in value. Further, it is an asset that adjusts with inflation and cannot be outlived.

Developing a claiming strategy, particularly for married and previously-married retirees, is one of the most complex areas of Social Security planning. The rules are confusing and must be followed carefully to maximize benefits.

The following is a brief summary of some of the key concepts discussed in previous columns.

Wait if you Can

You can start retirement benefits based on your work record as early as age 62. However, if your cash flow allows, waiting until the current full retirement age (FRA) of 66 or even until age 70 will pay off big time. Monthly benefits at age 62 are 25% lower than if you were to wait until age 66 to start. Further, waiting until age 70 to start boosts your monthly benefit by 32% vs. starting at age 66.

Other factors that impact this timing decision include your health, family history, whether or not you are still working, your marital status, age and earnings history of the other spouse if married, and the adequacy of other sources of income.

Benefits given up by waiting can be considered as the cost of generating higher Social Security benefits later on. This cost of waiting can generate a much larger, guaranteed, inflation-adjusted lifetime income stream compared to a purchasing a lifetime inflation-adjusted fixed annuity through an insurance company.

File and Suspend

For married couples, it sometimes makes sense for the older, higher-earning spouse to start benefits at age 66 and then immediately suspend. This allows the other spouse to receive spousal benefits. The first spouse can then defer his/her own benefits to age 70, at which time these benefits are started at a maximum level. If the second spouse waits until age 66 to start collecting spousal benefits, that spouse can also defer taking “own” benefits until age 70, again maximizing benefits. Only one spouse can collect spousal benefits at a time. No double dipping! Spousal benefits are available after one year of marriage.


Those already divorced must have been married at least ten years and divorced for two years before they can collect a spousal benefit based on their divorced spouse’s work record. The same goes for their exes if they want to collect on them. In this case, double dipping is allowed. Benefits collected by ex-spouses do not impact each other’s benefits. Spousal benefits cease if the spouse collecting benefits remarries.

Survivor Benefits

These benefits are available to surviving spouses and to divorced individuals following the death of the ex spouse. Generally, the survivor benefit is the age 66 benefit of the deceased spouse or the deceased spouse’s actual benefits if that person had already started receiving “own” benefits.
Reduced benefits can start as early as age 60. One can defer taking “own” benefits all the way to age 70 even though survivor benefits might be taken first. Here, remarriage after age 60 will not prevent eligibility for survivor benefits.


This very brief summary should never be applied to your situation without first seeking the help of a knowledgeable, competent, trusted advisor. Each household has circumstances that impact the selection of an optimal strategy.

And while Social Security personnel are equipped to describe options and answer questions, they are not allowed to provide advice or help you design that optimal strategy.

This material is provided for general information purposes only. Investments and insurance products are not FDIC insured, not bank deposits, not obligations of, or guaranteed by Canandaigua National Bank & Trust or any of its affiliates. Investments are subject to investment risks, including possible loss of principal amount invested. Past performance is not indicative of future investment results. Before making any investment decision, please consult your legal, tax or financial advisor. Investments and services may be offered through affiliate companies.