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Many people don't understand how to get the most out of Social Security, which leaves them collecting smaller checks than they could otherwise get. If you're trying to help a retirement-age parent with her finances -- or looking to maximize your own benefits -- you need to know how to properly work the system.

The techniques described below aren't gender specific. When I refer to "your mom," I mean the lower-earning spouse in a current or past marriage. A man can qualify for benefits based on the earnings history of his wife (or his ex or his deceased spouse) just as a woman can.

It's more likely, however, that women will have earned less over their lifetimes than the men they marry have. That means women often wind up collecting lower benefits unless they deploy some of these techniques.

"Social Security is especially important to women," said Jonathan Peterson, the author of "Social Security for Dummies" and executive communications director for AARP. "They tend to have lower earnings and to interrupt their earnings for child rearing and caregiving. They live longer . . . and there will be a whole lot of women facing later life single because of divorce or being widowed. All these things make it important for women to have their eyes open."

Before we go any further, let's review the basics of how Social Security works:

  • People typically can qualify for a reduced Social Security benefit starting at age 62. Applying early can mean locking in that lower benefit for life, plus their checks may be reduced further if they continue to work.
  • The "full retirement age," when the benefit stops being reduced, was 65 for people born before 1938 but is gradually increasing to 67 for people born in 1960 or later. Once you reach full retirement age, your Social Security benefits won't be reduced even if you continue to work.
  • People who postpone their retirement beyond full retirement age earn "delayed retirement credits" that boost their benefit by 8% for each year they put off retiring. The benefit increase stops at age 70.
  • People can opt for benefits based on their own earnings record, or they can claim up to 50% of the benefit earned by a spouse or former spouse. Opting for a spousal benefits doesn't affect the benefits of the worker who earned the benefits, whether you're still married or divorced.
  • If their spouse or former spouse is dead, people can claim up to 100% of the deceased person's benefit.

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

Okay, now we can review how to put that knowledge to use in various situations. Such as:

Your mom is married. People who earn less than their spouses, or who were out of the workforce for many years, may get a bigger check by claiming up to half of their spouse's benefit rather than 100% of their own.

But many people don't realize they have this option. Fewer than half of the respondents in a recent poll for AARP who had ever been married even knew that spousal benefits were available.

Your mom typically can start claiming a spousal benefit as soon as she turns 62, as long as her husband has started collecting his benefits. (Another option, if the husband has reached full retirement age, is for him to "file and suspend," which means he applies for Social Security but puts off receiving the checks. That allows your mom to start receiving a spousal benefit, while his own benefit can be left alone to grow.)

If your mom starts claiming benefits early, though, she's locking in a significantly smaller check for the rest of her life. Her spousal benefit check at age 62 would be 30% smaller than if she waited until 66 (today's full retirement age), Peterson said. If her husband's full retirement benefit is $1,000 a month, for example, she would get a monthly check of about $350. If she waited until she turned 66, her check would be $500.

(Furthermore, her checks will be reduced if she continues to work because of withholding, under the Social Security earnings test. In 2012, for example, people younger than full retirement age will see their retirement checks reduced by $1 for every $2 they earn over the exemption limit of $14,640. A different test applies during the year in which an individual reaches full retirement age.)

Some people prefer the "bird in hand" of a smaller check, but that's often a mistake, said Christine Fahlund, senior financial planner for T. Rowe Price. Most people, she said, are better off delaying retirement, if possible, to increase their checks and guarantee the higher payments for life. Not only are they likely to receive more money overall, but the larger checks can also serve as a kind of "longevity insurance" if you live longer than expected and exhaust your other resources.

On the other hand, "later is not always better," Peterson said. Claiming checks earlier can make sense if a person's life expectancy is short because of ill health, for example, or if she simply can't get by without the money.

You can determine the "break-even point" -- when the value of the larger checks exceeds the cost of forgoing the earlier benefit -- by using Social Security's benefit estimator. In the above example, you would first calculate how much your mom would take home in the 48 months between age 62 and age 66 if she chose the smaller benefit ($350 times 48 equals $16,800). Then you'd compare the difference in monthly payments at age 62 and age 66 ($500 minus $350 equals $150), and divide the amount from the first calculation by that amount ($16,800 divided by $150 equals 112 months, or a little over 9 years). So if Mom lives past 75 (age 66 plus 9 years), she'll earn more overall by delaying.

If your mom waits until her own full retirement age to claim spousal benefits, she can benefit from another technique. If her spousal benefit is larger than her own benefit, she can get spousal checks for the years between her full retirement age and age 70. Then, once her own benefit has hit its maximum amount, she can switch from spousal benefits to a benefit based on her own record if that amount is greater.

If there's a dependent child in the mix, the rules change a bit. Your mom can receive a full spousal benefit -- up to half of her husband's full retirement benefit -- at any age, as long as her husband has filed for Social Security and the child is receiving benefits. (The children of Social Security recipients qualify for checks as well, as long as they're unmarried and under 18, or under 20 and full-time students, or disabled with a disability that started when they were younger than 22.) Your mom can receive her spousal benefit until the child reaches age 16. At that point, the child's benefits would continue but your mom's would stop unless she's old enough to receive retirement benefits (age 62 or older) or survivors' benefits as a widow or widower (age 60).

Your mom is divorced. Your mom can claim benefits based on her ex's record as long as:

  • She's at least 62.
  • The marriage lasted at least 10 years.
  • She's currently unmarried.

What's more, her ex doesn't have to cooperate. As long as he's 62 or older, he needn't have filed to receive his own benefits for her to claim a spousal check, and his approval isn't needed. It will help the application process if your mom has his Social Security number, but the Social Security Administration says it can track down his records without it.

The benefit amount and rules for collecting are the same for a divorced spouse as for a current spouse. As noted above, claiming a spousal benefit doesn't reduce the ex's benefits, or affect the benefits of his current spouse or any other former spouses. But as with other retirement benefits, choosing to take the money early will result in a permanent reduction in your mom's checks. If she continues to work, the check could be reduced further by the earnings test.

If she delays claiming her spousal benefit until she reaches her own full retirement age, she'll also preserve the choice to switch to her own retirement benefit at age 70, if that amount is greater.

What if your mom remarried after her divorce? She can't claim benefits based on an ex's record if she's still married to a subsequent spouse. But if the later marriage ends -- by divorce, annulment or death -- she can apply for benefits based on either previous spouse's record.

Your mom is widowed or her ex has died. Once a breadwinner dies, so does the 50% limit on spousal benefits. Your mom can claim up to 100% of the retirement benefit of a deceased spouse -- or a deceased ex. Furthermore, she can receive benefits at a younger age -- 60, or 50 if she's disabled -- and she can even remarry, as long as she does so after age 60.

To qualify for a survivor's benefit, she typically must have been married to the covered worker for at least nine months before his death. If they were divorced, the marriage must have lasted at least 10 years.

The nine-month minimum for current spouses has some exceptions. If the breadwinner died in an accident or in the line of duty as a member of a uniformed service, or if the couple was previously married to each other and the past marriage lasted nine months, the minimum is waived, and the survivor can apply for benefits.

As with other Social Security benefits, claiming a survivor's benefit before she reaches full retirement age will result in a smaller check, but the minimum is typically 71-1/2% of the dead spouse's benefit. If the person who died was receiving reduced benefits, the survivor's check is based on that reduced amount.

Another difference between spousal and survivor benefits is more flexibility in switching between benefits. If your mom receives benefits as a surviving spouse or surviving divorced spouse, she can switch to her own retirement benefit as early as age 62. Or she can wait to switch until full retirement age to her own, unreduced benefit.

If your mother does remarry after 60, she may qualify for benefits both as a widow and as a spouse. She can choose which benefit to take, but she can't take them both. Social Security will calculate both benefits, and she can choose the larger one.

Clearly, Social Security has a lot of moving parts. It's easy to get confused and make a mistake that could result in a smaller benefit than what she's entitled to. What's important is educating yourself and running the numbers, using the Social Security benefits estimator and tools like AARP's retirement calculator, to understand all your options.

"At least then people won't do stuff because they didn't know any better," Peterson said.

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If you suspect your mom should be getting a bigger check, you or she can contact the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213 to get the review process started.

Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.