Deciding when to take Social Security is the choice of a lifetime.

Seth Lewis, a Nationwide Insurance income planning consultant, offered valuable insights on how to maximize such benefits during a recent webinar co-hosted by New York Farm Bureau.

He started by outlining the program, established in 1935 during the Great Depression, before giving listeners various scenarios to consider based on their individual financial situations.

“No matter what your income level is, Social Security is probably going to be a significant portion of your retirement income,” Lewis said. “When and how to file is one of the most important decisions you’ll make. In most cases, these decisions are permanent.”

Most Americans file at the earliest possible time, age 62, usually because they need the extra money or they’re doubtful about Social Security’s future solvency. But those who can afford to wait until age 70 stand to gain considerably more income.

For example, a hypothetical couple who file early would receive $801,709 if the husband lives to age 85 and the wife reaches age 88. But if they wait till they’re 70 to file, they would get $963,160, a difference of more than $160,000.

Simply waiting five years until the man is 67 and the woman is 62 would give them $887,387, a difference of $85,678.

“You can really see how waiting till full retirement age can boost your income,” Lewis said.

Full retirement age is 66 for those born from 1943-54 and increases gradually to 67 for those born during or after 1960.

Lewis also showed filing options for single persons and how waiting can increase the amount of money they get from Social Security. For example, if 61-year-old “Farmer John” starts getting benefits at 62 and lives to 85, he’ll get $706,642; or $822,375 if he waits till full retirement age (66) or $888,552 by waiting until age 70.

Benefits do not increase after 70.

But by filing at 70, John gets 25% more income than what he’d get by starting at age 62.

“You generally only get one chance to get it right,” Lewis said. “The consequences can last a lifetime.”

There is a 12-month window for recipients to change their mind and get a do-over. But those who withdraw an application must pay back any benefits they’ve received, so this is seldom done.

Lewis reminded listeners that Social Security was never designed to be an individual or couple’s sole source of income. So retirement planning, which includes anticipated life expectancy, is extremely critical.

Studies show that married couples tend to live longer. A 65-year-old man has a 50% chance of reaching 87 and a 25% chance of living to 93.

A 65-year-old woman has a 50% chance of reaching her 89th birthday and a 25% chance of reaching age 96.

People must determine what their desired retirement income level is, analyze what they’d get from Social Security based on filing age, and identify how the gap in between can be filled.

A cash flow analysis helps identify income gaps.

Social Security provides a significant supplement, which is especially important for farmers who have been struggling through difficult financial times for most of their careers.

A portion of Social Security income will always be tax free, but the program is also quite complex with more than 2,800 rules and regulations. So it’s helpful to consult with a professional before deciding when to file.

Lewis said filing decisions may be simplified by using Nationwide’s Social Security 360 Analyzer tool, which identifies optimal filing methods and allows people to adjust parameters to compare different strategies.

It also provides instructions on how to file and helps people integrate Social Security into their comprehensive retirement income plan.

“Consider your filing decision in the big picture of your overall retirement income plan,” Lewis said.

To set up an account and see what your projected Social Security benefits are, based on filing age, go to ssa.gov/myaccount.

Farm Bureau members may obtain more information by calling 855-863-9636.

Paul Post is a freelance writer in eastern New York. He can be reached at paulpost@nycap.rr.com.

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