The typical imagery of happy, retired couples in their 50s and 60s enjoying vacations, playing with grandchildren, participating in hobbies and volunteering resonates with a large number of people. However, this vision is not the reality for a portion of the population that remains single in retirement, either having never married or those who are divorced or widowed.

Singles are an important and growing part of older America, with the unmarried now representing just under 46% of women and 30% of men over the age of 55, according to 2019 U.S. Census data. These people are hardly a fringe part of America’s senior population.

If you are single and planning for retirement, you may have a few questions about Social Security, how to maximize your benefit income, and how to ensure you can live comfortably. Social Security benefits for singles are generally grouped into these common scenarios:

Social Security Filing Strategies

Single, Never Married

The most obvious strategy—if it works for your particular financial situation—is to wait until age 70 to take full benefits. That’s because the longer you wait, the higher your benefit will be. Full retirement benefits start at your full retirement age (FRA) somewhere between 66–67, depending on when you were born, and continue to increase if you wait beyond FRA up to age 70.

Of course, it may not be possible to wait this long—or you may even prefer to take your benefit at an earlier time and preserve other investments. Just be aware that once you begin receiving Social Security, the monthly payment never changes outside of cost-of-living adjustments.

Over a lifetime, patience could be rewarded in benefits worth tens of thousands of dollars. Consider the case of Ann, who wants to claim at the optimal age for benefits. If she retires this year and immediately claims benefits at age 62, her monthly benefit will be $1,400. At 67, her full retirement age, the amount jumps to $2,000. If she waits until age 70, the monthly benefit will increase to $2,480. If she lives until age 89, Ann will have received $124,800 more in lifetime benefits by claiming at age 70 compared to age 62, with no adjustments for inflation.

Single and Divorced

In order to be eligible for spousal benefits after divorce, you generally have to meet the following criteria:

  • You were married to your ex-spouse for at least 10 years
  • You must be at least 62 and unmarried
  • Your ex-spouse must currently be eligible to receive Social Security

The monthly ex-spousal benefit amount will be worth 50% of your spouse’s benefit at your FRA. Interestingly, your ex-spouse doesn't have to currently be receiving a Social Security benefit; they only have to be eligible.

A favored approach is generally to take a spousal benefit prior to turning age 70 and before you start to receive your own full benefit. This allows you to live off spousal benefits—as long as you stay single and don’t remarry—until your own benefits kick in.

When deciding when to claim benefits on your ex-spouse’s record, you should remember that your monthly ex-spousal benefit doesn’t grow past your FRA like your own benefits would, but it will be permanently reduced if you claim the benefit before your FRA.

It should also be noted that claiming ex-spousal benefits will have no effect on the benefit your ex-spouse (or their spouse if they remarry) will receive, and your ex-spouse is not notified if you choose to claim on their record.

Single and Widowed

As a widow or widower, you may be eligible for a survivor benefit based on your deceased spouse’s record if you were married for at least nine months before the date of death. You can begin receiving your survivor benefit as soon as you reach age 60 (though it will be permanently reduced if you claim before your FRA), and you can receive those benefits even earlier if you are caring for children of the deceased who are under age 16. Under certain circumstances, it’s also possible to receive survivor benefits if you had divorced prior to your ex-spouse’s death.

If your spouse was receiving Social Security at death, the maximum amount you may receive in survivor benefits is equal to the amount they were receiving. If they hadn't begun receiving Social Security, your benefit payments are calculated as if your spouse had reached FRA.

Two common strategies pair survivor benefits with individual benefits. For instance, you can use survivor benefits until age 70 and then switch to your own benefits. Or, you can do the reverse by taking your benefits first and the survivor benefits later. Your decision may depend on your former spouse’s income and which approach best fits your financial situation.

Get Your Social Security Questions Answered

Still struggling to understand Social Security benefits? It can be confusing and difficult, but you’re not alone. Try the Social Security benefit calculator available through the Social Security Administration to get a better idea of what you could expect, or meet with a financial advisor to get your specific questions answered.

Nicole Webb

Nicole Webb

Senior Vice President, Financial Advisor

CFP®, Insurance License Nicole leads our national wealth management teams focusing on high-net-worth families with complex needs. In her 15+ years working in the financial services industry her asset management focus has led her to spend time in the institutional and family office sides of our business. Her depth of experience across business arms helps her Unifi investment strategies within a comprehensive tax and estate plan. Nicole gives her clients confidence they truly...Read More