Lynn O'Shaughnessy

Of course, none of us knows when we'll fold our last napkin, smell our last rose and take our last breath. For some people, family history may provide a clue. For those who aren't satisfied with making a wild guess, you may want to use the calculator at www.livingto100.com, which asks you dozens of questions before arriving at your anticipated life expectancy. When I tried it, the calculator suggested that I'd live to 94, but if I stopped eating bittersweet chocolate twice a day I could add another 1.75 years to my life.

Didn't sound like much of a trade-off to me.

If you're married, however, your actuarial gymnastics are even more complicated. Sadly, what many couples don't consider when weighing things like Social Security break-even points is what could happen when one of them dies.

In too many cases, a husband who earned the bigger paychecks could be condemning his wife to future poverty if he takes Social Security early.

(Obviously, the same thing can happen if the wife is the family's power earner.) For couples, there's a great benefit for delaying Social Security, especially if one spouse is a low-income worker or didn't work outside the home, says Henry K. Hebeler, the author of "J.K. Lasser's Your Winning Retirement Plan" and the creator of AnalyzeNow.com, an excellent resource for retirement software.

Hebeler's Social Security calculator is free, and you can also read articles the former aeronautics executive, who has three degrees from MIT, has written on the topic. On his Web site, he receives more questions on timing Social Security payments than any other subject.

"If the high-income spouse takes Social Security at 62, it's a major penalty to the surviving low-income spouse," Hebeler says. When a low-income spouse becomes a widow or widower, he or she can take either 100 percent of the higher wage earner's benefit or his or her own smaller one. "If you are married and more gutsy, you can make a very good case for the high-income spouse to delay till age 70 and the low-income spouse to delay till his or her full retirement age."

People should also look closely at the assumption - I'd call it a brash one - that they can take the smaller early payments, invest the cash and come out ahead financially. For starters, if you're 62 when you take Social Security benefits and you continue to work, your benefits will be reduced by $1 for every $2 earned above a certain amount. This year, it's $12,480.

There are plenty of other reasons why you might not want to try this. If you're tempted, you should take a look at an analysis that T. Rowe Price did on this and other Social Security options in its fall issue of the T. Rowe Price Report. You can find the report at the mutual fund's Web site at www.troweprice.com by typing "Price Report archive" into the site's search function.

By the way, if you began drawing Social Security checks at 62 and regret it, you can buy your way out of the mistake. You must file a "withdrawal of claim" and return the money. But at least you don't have to pay a penalty or interest.


Lynn O'Shaughnessy

Lynn O'Shaughnessy is the author of Retirement Bible.

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