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Are you single and wondering what your Social Security options might be? You may feel somewhat alone since a lot of the most publicized information on this subject is geared toward married couples. But the good news is just because you’re single doesn’t mean you have less Social Security options and privileges during your golden years.

Let’s take a look at a few important points:

1. The ability to file and suspend Social Security benefits depends on age, not marital status 

Let’s say you’ve never been married and want to continue working full time for a few years after your full retirement age (66). You may earn delayed retirement credits just the same as a married person.

Even if you’re single, delayed retirement credits are worth 8% for every year you postpone collecting Social Security benefits beyond the full retirement age, up to age 70.

For example, you could increase your benefits by 32% (4 x 8%) if you wait until age 70 to collect them. To put things in dollars and cents, if you were on par to receive $1,000 per month at age 66, waiting one year would increase your benefits to $1,080 per month at 67…or up to $1,320 at age 70.

2. For single people especially, the file-and-suspend strategy can be used as an insurance policy

Married people commonly use the file-and-suspend strategy in order to accumulate dependent benefits for a spouse or minor dependent child, while their own retirement benefit grows to the maximum amount at age 70. The larger the retirement benefit, the larger survivor benefit for beneficiaries once the worker dies.

But single people can use the strategy as an insurance policy. Let’s say you decide to file for benefits at full retirement age, and then immediately suspend your benefits to earn delayed retirement credits like we talked about in the first example.

You can change your mind at any time up to age 70 and request a lump-sum payout back to the time you suspended your benefits. If you choose to do so, however, you would lose the delayed retirement credits earned during that period. But it’s a good option to have in case a situation should arise where you would need immediate access to those funds.

3. There are a couple of key reasons singles may file and suspend, and then request a lump sum

Let’s say you file and suspend your Social Security benefits, but a year later you receive a serious health diagnosis that will likely affect your life expectancy. In this case, a lump sum payout may be beneficial for you to enjoy your final years.

You may also want an early payout if a loved one receives a similar diagnosis and you want to help support him or her financially.

Because you filed and suspended at your full retirement age, you could request a payout for the last year you suspended benefits. In the future, you would collect Social Security benefits based on your age when you suspended benefits, not larger benefits based on your current, older age.

One other option: you don’t have to take the entire lump sum payout. Whether you’re single or married, you can request a lump sum for either the entire suspension period or for any portion of that period.

Note: Unfortunately, unlike married people, singles don’t receive any survivor benefits for loved ones if they die before collecting benefits.

3. If you’re divorced, you can still collect spousal benefits

If you’re single due to a divorce, your former spouse’s work record could still work largely in your favor.

When you reach age 62, you may be eligible to receive Social Security benefits based on your ex-spouse’s work history, with the following stipulations:

  • You must have been married for at least 10 years
  • You must still be single

If you can check both of those boxes, then you can receive payments equal to 50% of your spouse’s Social Security benefits if you start collecting at full retirement age. If you also worked, then you are eligible for benefits based on your own work history and Social Security will pay your amount first. If your ex-spouse’s benefit is greater, the difference will be added to your benefit.

When you reach full retirement age, you can choose to receive only your ex-spouse’s benefits, let the amount of your own benefits increase, and then switch to claiming your benefits later. You can also claim survivor benefits if your ex-spouse dies as long as your marriage lasted 10 or more years and you’re still unmarried. It’s also important to note that collecting Social Security will not affect your ex’s benefits, even if he or she remarries.

The rules behind ex-spouse benefits can get complicated, so it’s best to contact the Social Security Administration for details.

4. If you are a widow or widower, you can collect your former spouse’s Social Security payments as a survivor benefit

If you wait until full retirement age to take payments, you can receive 100% of that benefit. You can also take whichever payment is larger: a monthly check based on your own work history, or the survivor’s benefit.

The rules behind survivor benefits and regular Social Security benefits differ, so talk with a financial professional about the details. Your choice also doesn’t have to be permanent and you can choose one of the following two strategies:

  • Claim survivor’s benefit, then switch to your own
  • Claim your own benefit now, then switch to survivor’s later

Again, it’s wise to discuss with a financial professional what your optimal strategy would be, based on your own individual situation.

While delaying your benefits will boost your monthly payments and, potentially, your total income stream later on, you should also consider whether you can afford to do so. If you’re not working, will other sources of income, such as annuities and investments cover your expenses?

Whether you’re married or single, working with a professional to project your future benefits and determine the best time to collect Social Security may help you maximize your benefits, which could in turn boost to your overall financial health in retirement.

Author Ron L. Brown, CFP®

Ron is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ and President of R.L. Brown Wealth Management. He specializes in retirement, estate, and business planning for professionals and entrepreneurs. Ron assists his clients with creating a financial plan to ensure they are able to live their ideal lifestyle during retirement and leave a strong legacy for their family. Ron has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, US News, Yahoo Finance, Investopedia, and numerous other high profile financial publications.

More posts by Ron L. Brown, CFP®
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