When to begin Social Security: The conundrum

Bradley_JeffIn retirement planning, especially in discussions involving those who retired early or are thinking of retiring early, this question usually comes up: When do you plan to start taking Social Security?

To answer this question, we have to look at two alternatives:

1) If one defers payment to age 70 (currently the latest permissible date for increased benefits) or some other age, a higher monthly benefit is payable.
2) Instead, if one decides to commence payment early, say at age 62, the question then becomes how many years it takes to come out ahead by deferring. In other words, how many years does it take to reach the “break-even” point?

For example, a maximum earner, retiring at age 62 in 2015 could expect a monthly benefit of approximately $2,014. Instead, if he or she defers to age 70, that amount is estimated to be $3,544 (in 2015 dollars).

If we assume 2% CPI, the total benefits received from age 62 through age 78 are approximately $484,000. If deferred to age 70, the total benefits received from age 70 through age 78 are approximately $486,000. Thus, the breakeven point is somewhere between 16 and 17 years from age 62.

Why is it difficult to pick one or the other? Let’s examine the issues.

Many financial advisers suggest that a retiree would always be better off deferring commencement as long as possible as this maximizes the benefit. However, this may not always be the case and is really a decision that depends on several factors, many of them personal.

Obviously, to make the best decision, retirees will need to know if they (and their spouses, if applicable) will be alive at the “breakeven” point(s). Because no one knows the answer to this question, one possible approach would be to look at the present value of the two options at age 62. Using the current mortality table to calculate minimum lump sum distributions under the Internal Revenue Code and a 2% real interest rate assumption (note that the actual real rate of interest used will vary based on individual expectations), the present value of the benefit payable at age 62 to a single person is approximately $430,000 and the present value of the deferred benefit is approximately $452,000. However, if a 4% real interest rate is used, the present values are $347,000 and $327,000, respectively. Thus, the present value depends on the underlying assumptions which will vary by individual, making it somewhat subjective.

What about the “utility” of the immediate cash? In this regard, you should consider cash needs, both immediate and long-term. This would mean no Social Security cash now but more in the future versus some Social Security cash now but less in the future. We should note that it doesn’t do any good to have more money in the future if we aren’t alive or aren’t able to enjoy it. To assess cash needs, you will have to run the numbers because everyone’s situation is different.

Also, many proponents of delaying Social Security note that deferring it is a significantly lower-cost alternative than buying commercial longevity insurance. The key decision point here is that it shouldn’t matter which is a lower-cost alternative. What matters is whether longevity insurance is needed or wanted in the first place. If so, then deferring Social Security may be the right move. If you don’t want longevity insurance, deferring Social Security may not be the right move.

Don’t forget taxes! Social Security can be taxable to some individuals and can affect Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) which is used to determine eligibility for Federal tax subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

And then we have the latest Social Security Trustee’s Report. Here’s an excerpt:

“The theoretical combined OASDI trust funds have a projected depletion date of 2033, unchanged from last year’s report. After the depletion of reserves, continuing tax income would be sufficient to pay 77 percent of scheduled benefits in 2033 and 72 percent in 2088.”

So what does this mean? Taking Social Security early may be the bird in the hand. Modeling a 23% haircut may be the deciding factor on whether Social Security should be taken as soon as possible. On the other hand, 2033 is a long way out, and we will have to wait and see.