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The (un)Importance of Social Security Full Retirement Age

A reader writes in, asking:

“I read over and over that it’s ideal to wait until 70 to file for social security but that it’s important to wait until at least full retirement age. But what is special about full retirement age exactly? Am I wrong in thinking that it is not much better or worse than a year earlier or later?”

No, you are not wrong.

In terms of general Social Security rules, full retirement age is important because:

  • It’s the reference point around which your benefit is calculated (with a reduction for filing early and a bonus for filing later),
  • It’s the earliest date at which you can suspend benefits (though that’s much less frequently relevant these days after the changes made in 2015), and
  • It’s the point at which the earnings test is no longer applicable.

And full retirement age is often the best age at which to file for spousal or survivor benefits because:

  • It’s the point at which survivor benefits and spousal benefits stop growing (i.e., there’s no increase for waiting until 70), and
  • It’s the earliest date at which you can file a restricted application for spousal benefits (i.e., an application for just spousal benefits) for those who are still eligible to do so (i.e., anybody who was at least 62 years old as of 1/1/2016).

But, from the perspective of when to start receiving your own retirement benefits, full retirement age is nothing special. It’s just one of 96 possible months at which you can start taking benefits.

And in fact, of those 96 months, the first one and the last one (62 and 70) come up much more frequently than other months as the optimal time to start benefits.

If you could claim at any age (i.e., with delayed retirement credits earned for delaying beyond age 70 and with early claiming available prior to 62 — with an accompanying penalty), people in particularly good health would often want to wait well past age 70. And people in very poor health would often want to claim very early — perhaps in their 50s even.

But those aren’t options. So everybody who would be best served by claiming prior to 62 (if such were an option) will find “claim at 62” to be the best strategy. And everybody who would be best served by claiming later than 70 (if such were an option) will find “claim at 70” to be the best strategy.

In other words, yes, it is very uncommon that full retirement age happens to be the best answer for when to start receiving retirement benefits. (And for both spouses to start receiving retirement benefits at full retirement age is almost surely a mistake. In most cases, that would be a dominated strategy.)

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