Baby Boomers reaching retirement age must decide when to take Social Security benefits

The oldest of 70 million Baby Boomers -- those born between 1946 and 1964 -- are starting to hit retirement age and face the question: to retire or not to retire.

Translation: When is it best to take Social Security benefits?

Joanne Kehris of Plum decided to take benefits at age 65. Herb and Becky Wright of Zelienople began collecting when they each hit age 62. And Jim Antoniono of Greensburg began collecting at 66.

It's not a simple answer; everyone's situation is different.

In a nod to Boomers everywhere, we're offering some stories -- and some statistics -- about several new retirees and the different paths they chose.

First the basics from the Social Security Administration. That agency said one can take early Social Security benefits at age 62, but the monthly payments will be significantly less -- about 25 percent less -- than if you waited until full retirement age, which is now 66. If you hold off until age 70, you'll get the maximum benefit, or about 32 percent more than at full retirement age.

So if you are scheduled to get $1,000 a month at age 66, you'd get $750 at age 62 or $1,320 at 70.

Social Security officials say the average 2012 benefit for full retirement age is $1,200 a month, with maximum benefit of about $2,500 a month.

If someone loves the work and is healthy, they may not be ready to retire at 62. But should he or she wait until 66 or 70 to collect because of the higher monthly benefits?

It's a gamble on how long you will live, and the experts disagree on whether to take that bet.

Many people cannot afford to retire at 62 these days. Investments haven't recovered fully from the Great Recession, and you may have to pay for your own health care benefits until Medicare at 65.

Some Social Security stories

Joanne Kehris, 65, of Plum, retired last fall as director of family services at the Ronald McDonald House in Lawrenceville after 15 years at the nonprofit agency. She took her Social Security benefits then.

She waited to retire until the organization that houses families of sick children moved into its new home behind Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC a couple of years ago.

But the early-morning commute, especially during the winter, helped persuade her to retire.

"Several people told me 'you'll just know when it's time to retire,' " she said. "It was time."

She said there wasn't that big a difference in monthly Social Security benefits between taking them at age 65 or age 66. Being able to qualify for Medicare at 65 was a big factor for her, too.

"Health care is so expensive," she said. She is healthy, but still pays $100 a month for supplemental Medicare coverage and expects that to rise.

She didn't get a pension or a 401K retirement plan from work, but has her own Individual Retirement Account savings, which took a big hit like everyone else's during the recession.

Ms. Kehris, who is divorced, plans to visit her daughters in New York City, Buffalo and Chicago more often now. But she doesn't splurge as much and has a budget.

"Now, you cut the bushes in your yard," she said.

And she plans to downsize from her four-bedroom home.

"I always said my house is my retirement," she said.

Herb and Becky Wright of Zelienople both decided to begin drawing Social Security benefits at age 62.

Mr. Wright, 72, retired as a social studies teacher from Pine-Richland High School in 1997, after 30 years, at age 57. He began drawing his Social Security benefits five years later.

"My thought was the longer you have [benefits], the more you'll get out of it," he said. "The longer you wait to retire, statistically, you've shortened your enjoyment time. I wanted to make sure I could play on the beach, not just lie on the beach or be in a wheelchair at the beach."

He still substitute teaches at Pine-Richland about 50 days a year, he said, but the flexible schedule gives him time to golf and travel to visit children and grandchildren. He likes working, though.

"I love teaching; it engages your brain and the kids keep you young," he said.

When he retired, Mr. Wright received family health coverage until age 65, in addition to his pension.

He and his wife are healthy, but he said he didn't consider how long his parents lived in deciding when to take benefits.

His wife, 65, retired from her job as office manager at the World Affairs Council last year. She began drawing her Social Security benefits at 62 as well. She had to be careful because of the penalty for collecting early Social Security benefits and working, he said. She is now back working two days a week at the council.

Attorney Jim Antoniono, 66, of Greensburg, began collecting Social Security benefits this year at full retirement age.

"I didn't look at it earlier because I knew there was a penalty (loss of benefits) if you continued to work," he said. "It just didn't make sense."

There is no loss of Social Security benefits for working when you reach full retirement age. Mr. Antoniono still enjoys practicing civil and criminal law, and doesn't plan to stop working.

"I still enjoy it; it's fun, and no two days are the same," he said. "I'll probably continue working forever. After you build a practice for 30 years, you're crazy to walk away. But I have cut back some; I'm not looking to try a lot of cases now."

He said he decided not to wait until 70 to collect a larger Social Security check after he and a law partner looked at how old they would be before they made up for the delayed payments.

He and his wife, Susan, have five children and eight grandchildren between them to visit.

Susan Antoniono, 60, is a dental hygenist and will look at collecting Social Security benefits at age 62.

Mr. Antoniono recommended asking questions at a local Social Security office. The people at [the Greensburg office near his home] were "very helpful and answered all my questions, and they explain it well," he said, including questions about Medicare.

Linda Sporter, 61, of Baldwin Borough, said she has been talking to friends and relatives about collecting Social Security when she turns 62 in October.

But she doesn't think she will make the plunge at this point.

"I can't live on what I would get at 62," she said. "It just doesn't work for me."

She runs a state-registered day care center out of her home and enjoys her work.

Ms. Sporter said she was told that if you "collect early at 62, you are limited to earning $14,000 a year. So that wouldn't work for me, either," she said.

"I'm healthy and not on any medicine," she said, "so I plan to work as long as I can, maybe until 70. I want to. I enjoy the kids.

"I understand I can collect about half of my ex-husband's benefits without it affecting his benefits, so I'll look at that, too," she said, adding they remain good friends, and he began collecting his own Social Security benefits at 62. They have one adult son.

Health care is a big factor in deciding when to retire, she said. Seniors don't qualify for Medicare until age 65, so she must pay about $300 a month for her own health care now under a plan that provides for a limited number of doctor visits per year.

Robin Moore, 63, of Bridgeville, began collecting Social Security benefits at 60, shortly after he retired as a therapeutic activities employee for Torrance State Hospital in Blairsville.

Mr. Moore's wife died of cancer, so he began collecting widower's benefits at 60 on her earnings.

"The drive to Torrance was 60 miles each way," he said, "and just wasn't worth it after doing it for 13 years." He worked at Mayview State Hospital until it was closed. He gets health care benefits as a retired state employee.

With his two sons grown and on their own, and a state pension after working 33 years, including service with the U.S. Army, he is enjoying his retirement. He collects garage band records as a hobby and likes to play golf.

Waiting longer to retire

U.S. Labor statistics show more people working at age 65 than at any time in the past 30 years -- more than one in four, and analysts say that is mainly because of the recession and investment losses. More people appear to be delaying taking Social Security, as well.

"The percentage of people nationally who are waiting until full retirement is up a little over five years ago," said Terri Lewis, regional director of the Social Security Administration in Philadelphia. "We don't attribute it to the recession, or anything else; we don't analyze, we simply give people their options."

But she noted also that more people are not waiting until 70 to collect. The most recent nationwide Social Security figures, for 2010, show that about 45 percent of those eligible to collect benefits at 62 do so. At age 66, about 10 percent of those eligible begin collecting, and at age 70, only 1 to 2 percent collect then. The remainder begin collecting in other years.

Doug Carey, who founded the financial planning software firm WealthTrace, says Social Security doesn't see itself as an odds maker, but it does require you to bet on your longevity.

A person who earned the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $70,000 per year for 35 years, waits until age 70 to claim Social Security and lives until at least age 90 will accumulate almost $162,000 more in benefits than he would if he had claimed at 62.

But there's a possibility of losing the bet and getting nothing.

Retired law professor and Social Security expert Merton Bernstein says the longevity bet odds are bad, so claim early.

"You never know when the bell will ring. I subscribe to the Woody Allen principle: 'Take the money and run.' "

A chart on the Social Security website can help you understand the odds. A 61-year-old woman has an 80 percent chance of living to 75, and a 50 percent chance of living to 85. Odds are a little lower for men. And one in four people who are 65 today will live to 90.

Still, your family genes will play a big part in your odds.

How long did your parents live? And your grandparents? Many of the body's natural defenses, or a tendency to develop certain diseases, are inherited.

But of course, the first serious step to deciding when to retire is determining how much you need -- and want -- in retirement income.

"You can be young without money but you can't be old without it," as playwright Tennessee Williams said.

But what is important to one person is not necessarily a must for the next.

Are you mainly going to relax and enjoy your garden, or go golfing or fishing? That can be relatively inexpensive. With the mortgage paid, kids through college, and your house in good shape, you may need only $3,000 a month to live on.

But for many, retirement plans are more ambitious -- buying or renting a second home in Florida to escape the cold winters, or traveling regularly to see grandchildren, the top national parks and the Seven Wonders of the World? In that case, you may need $6,000 or more a month.

Living on $1,200 or $1,500 a month from Social Security alone will be difficult, to say the least, especially if you have to pay $300 or $500 a month for health care benefits.

Expected investment income may not materialize. Many Baby Boomers planned to retire on their 401K employer plans and IRAs -- but those took a devastating 40 percent hit or more with the stock market dive of 2008 and are just beginning to come back to 2007 or 2008 levels.

Once you decide on your expected expenses and see what your retirement plans and Social Security benefits are, you may be willing to work a few more years and wait to get that extra income.

Maximizing benefits

The amount of your Social Security payment depends on your earning power over a 35-year working career, and Social Security takes the highest 35 years of earnings.

But if you are married or widowed, you have some flexibility under the system.

A wife or husband can draw half of his spouse's Social Security benefits instead of his own benefits without affecting the partner's benefit levels. So financial planners may advise a couple to draw one person's benefits and let the second person's benefits build, especially if both have worked.

If a person has a pension or a good employer-based 401K plan, he may be able to delay taking Social Security and let the monthly benefits rise.

There is a penalty for working and collecting early Social Security benefits at 62, however. You lose $1 in Social Security benefits for every $2 in earned income over a $14,600 limit.

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Debra Duncan, freelance writer: First Published July 26, 2012 4:00 AM


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