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Social Security tips for singles

Key takeaways

  • The longer you delay Social Security to age 70, the higher your monthly benefits.
  • Divorced: Your benefit can be based on your ex-spouse's work history.
  • Widowed: Evaluate and take the higher benefit, claiming either survivor's benefits or your own benefits and switching later.
  • Consider all your income sources when making a decision on Social Security.

Figuring out when and how to take Social Security can be a complicated decision, even if you're single. Here are some strategies to consider to help make the most of your Social Security benefits if you're widowed, divorced, or have never married.

First, some basics

You can start taking Social Security, receiving reduced benefits, when you reach age 62, rather than waiting until your full retirement age (FRA). FRA ranges from 65 to 67, depending on when you were born. (See your full retirement age.) If you take benefits before you reach FRA, Social Security will reduce your monthly payments. If you delay collecting until you reach FRA, the amount of your monthly benefit will increase until you reach age 70.

Generally, the longer you delay taking Social Security, the higher your monthly benefits may be, and the gains from waiting can be significant.

Of course, if you wait to collect, you may not live long enough to enjoy the added value of increased monthly payments. Because none of us knows when we will die, you need to make some reasonable assumptions about your life span, based on your health and family history.

Related Social Security webcast: Make your decisions with confidence

View the entire webcast.

If you're single

Some people want to retire as soon as they can, for health reasons. But if you don't need to retire right away, consider what you may be giving up if you take Social Security at age 62.

Consider the following hypothetical example. Colleen's FRA is 67. If she starts taking benefits at age 62, she will get $1,400 a month. If she waits until her FRA to collect, she will receive 43% more, or $2,000 a month. If she waits until age 70, her benefits will increase another 34% (relative to age 62), to $2,480 a month.1 And if she were to live to age 89, her lifetime benefits would increase by about $112,000. That’s 25% greater than if she had started collecting benefits at 62.2 (Note: All figures are in today's dollars and before tax; the actual benefit would be adjusted for inflation and would possibly be subject to income tax.)

The longer you wait, the higher your monthly benefit

Note: Example assumes Colleen was born in 1960. Her primary insurance amount (PIA), the government's calculation of your Social Security benefits at full retirement age, is $2,000 in today's dollars. All lifetime benefits are expressed in today's dollars, calculated using life expectancy of 89. The numbers are sensitive to, and would change with, life expectancy assumptions.

But that's only part of the story. If you're working, you don't have to live on your savings. And if you stop working full time and leave a job with good pay and benefits, it may be difficult to ever regain that level of compensation if you need to return to work later. Also, as you approach retirement, you're often at the peak of your earnings and your ability to build retirement savings. Keep working and you can make "catch-up" contributions to tax-deferred workplace savings plans. Catch-up contributions enable you to set aside larger amounts of money for retirement. For example, the limit on pretax contributions to 401(k) plans is $23,000 in 2024, but if you are age 50 or older, you can contribute an additional $7,500 each year. Note: These amounts are subject to cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs).

If you're widowed

If you're a widow or a widower, you are eligible to collect your late spouse's Social Security payments as a survivor benefit. Again, if you wait until FRA to take payments, you can receive 100% of that benefit—less if you collect before your FRA. (The rules for survivor benefits and regular Social Security benefits differ.) You can also take whichever payment is larger: a monthly check based on your own work history, or the survivor’s benefit.

Your choice doesn't have to be permanent. There are 2 strategies worth considering:

Claim survivor's benefit, then switch to your own. First, you can claim a survivor's benefit, let the amount of your own Social Security monthly benefits grow, and then switch to claiming your benefits later. This may work best if you're under age 70 (because your own payments will only increase until you're 70) and have a relatively high benefit at FRA compared with that of your deceased spouse.

Claim survivor's benefit, then switch to your own

Note: Example assumes Ann was born in 1961. Her primary insurance amount (PIA) is $1,500 in today's dollars. Her late spouse’s PIA is $1,500 in today's dollars and he claimed his benefit at age 62. All lifetime benefits are expressed in today's dollars, calculated using a life expectancy of 89 for Ann. The numbers are sensitive to, and would change with, life expectancy assumptions.

Consider this hypothetical example. Ann is eligible to receive $1,050 if she were to claim her own Social Security benefit at age 62. Her husband, John had begun receiving his monthly benefits of $1,125 at age 62, but he died at age 66. If Ann claims her survivor benefits now before her FRA, she would receive $1,237 per month and an amount higher than her own benefit of $1,050. If you are a surviving spouse, Social Security automatically defaults to the higher amount—in this case, her survivor benefit. Alternatively, she can elect to receive survivor benefits until age 70, and then switch to her own benefits. By then her own benefits would have increased to $1,860 a month, a 50% increase in monthly benefits. Ann would earn more than $142,000 in extra payments if she lived to age 89, boosting her lifetime benefits by about 35%.2 These rules are complex, however, and you should consider speaking with a Social Security representative.

Claim your own benefit now; switch to survivor's later. Many retirees are surprised to learn that survivor benefits can increase after a spouse dies, but they do—until you reach FRA. This strategy may work best if you're younger than full retirement age and you will have a low monthly benefit at FRA compared with that of your deceased spouse.

For example, Mary Ellen is eligible for $700 a month in benefits if she claims her own benefit at age 62 and $1,000 a month at her FRA. Her husband, Patrick, died this year. As in the previous example, if Mary Ellen claims survivor benefits at 62 (before her survivor FRA), she would receive $2,100 a month. If you are a surviving spouse, Social Security automatically defaults to the higher amount—your own or your survivor benefit. But if Mary Ellen chooses her own lower benefits of $700 for the first 5 years of her retirement, by the time she hits FRA of 67, her survivor benefit will rise to $2,640 a month, about a 26% increase. She could then switch to that higher amount, and increase her lifetime benefits by about $58,000, or almost 9%, if she lives to age 89.2

Claim your own benefit now; switch to survivor's later

Note: Example assumes Mary Ellen was born in 1962. Her primary insurance amount (PIA) is $1,000 in today's dollars. Her late spouse's PIA is $2,000 in today's dollars and he claimed his benefit at 70. All lifetime benefits are expressed in today's dollars, calculated using a life expectancy of 89 for Mary Ellen. The numbers are sensitive to, and would change with, life expectancy assumptions.

Divorced and still single

If you are single as a result of a divorce and meet the requirements, you may be eligible to claim a higher retirement benefit based on your ex-spouse's work record. This applies to both ex-spouses, whether you are the ex-wife or the ex-husband, and also for divorced spouses in a same-sex marriage.

The basic rules:

  • You and your ex must have been married for 10 consecutive years or longer, even if the marriage ended 30 years ago.
  • Both you and your ex must be at least age 62 before you can claim as an ex-spouse.
  • To collect on an ex's record, you must not be remarried.
  • You and your ex must be divorced for 2 years or longer, or your ex must already be claiming retirement benefits.

Tip: You'll only get a retirement benefit based on your ex's wage record if it is a higher benefit amount than you would receive based on your own wage record. You can contact the Social Security Administration and they will let you know if and how to apply for the higher benefit amount.

Find your own strategy

Don't think of Social Security as just a direct deposit once a month; it's a lifetime, inflation-adjusted component of your overall retirement income. Consequently, you should not determine your strategy for Social Security benefits in isolation—instead, you should strive to maximize your total retirement income. Delaying your benefits will boost your monthly payments and, potentially, your total income stream later on.

However, if you wait to age 70 to collect benefits and you are not working, you need to make sure your other sources of income, such as pensions, annuities, and investments, meet your expenses. If you don't do so, delaying Social Security could leave you withdrawing from your other assets more quickly, which could be a problem later in retirement. So, take a few minutes and project your future benefits, based on various scenarios, to help determine when it's best to start taking Social Security. Doing so may help you maximize your benefits, which could contribute to your financial wellbeing in retirement.

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This information is intended to be educational and is not tailored to the investment needs of any specific investor.

1. The hypothetical examples were calculated using a Social Security tool developed by the Financial Solutions Team at Fidelity Investments. The Social Security tool uses rules and published data from Social Security Administration. 2. Social Security benefits are calculated in today's dollars. Lifetime benefits are determined by calculating Social Security payments in today's dollars over time. The calculations of Social Security benefits in this article are for illustrations only. They do not account for the effect of taxes. The tax effects for one individual could be very different from those of another individual depending on multiple factors, including the sources and levels of income. For personalized estimates, try the Retirement Estimator from the Social Security Administration. The information contained herein is general in nature, is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal or tax advice. Fidelity does not provide legal or tax advice. Fidelity cannot guarantee that such information is accurate, complete, or timely. Laws of a particular state or laws that may be applicable to a particular situation may have an impact on the applicability, accuracy, or completeness of such information. Federal and state laws and regulations are complex and are subject to change. Changes in such laws and regulations may have a material impact on pretax and/or after-tax investment results. Fidelity makes no warranties with regard to such information or results obtained by its use. Fidelity disclaims any liability arising out of your use of, or any tax position taken in reliance on, such information. Always consult an attorney or tax professional regarding your specific legal or tax situation.

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