Optimizing Social Security Benefits with Mary Beth Franklin
schedule 5-12 Minutes
schedule 5-12 Minutes

Top Takeaways

  • Women and other minorities can optimize their strategies for claiming Social Security retirement benefits by keeping a few key ideas in mind.
  • Life expectancy can change the applicability of some common-sense advice for certain retirees.
  • Specific rules for common-law marriage and divorce can affect the claiming strategies that may work best for certain retirees.
  • If you’re older than age 18, you can make a “my Social Security” account at www.SSA.gov to get important information about your Social Security record.

The life experiences of women and other minority groups are unique to their backgrounds and individual circumstances. Naturally, the same is true of their needs when planning their Social Security retirement benefit-claiming strategies.

On this episode of The Wave Strength, host Ruth Schau, Sr. Director Pension Solutions in Pacific Life's Institutional division, talks with Pacific Life’s Caroline Elrod and renowned Certified Financial Planner, Social Security expert, and public speaker Mary Beth Franklin about what women and other minorities should be aware of as they move into the Social Security-planning phases of their retirement journeys.

When to Claim Based on Life Expectancy

Traditional advice about when to claim Social Security retirement benefits usually emphasizes the value of delayed retirement credits. If retirees wait to claim until after they reach their full retirement ages, their total benefits increase by 8% for every year they delay—but the increases stop at age 70.

On one hand, it makes sense for women to take full advantage of these delayed credits, as statistics show women tend to live longer than men overall. Waiting until age 70 will ensure the largest possible retirement benefit for both the claimant and the spouse if the claimant passes away. But this advice may not be applicable to all minorities in the U.S. As Franklin says, “The sad fact is minorities in this country do not tend to live as long as many white Americans. And if you're not going to live a long time, perhaps delaying until 70 is not your best strategy.”

Of course, these decisions also must be informed by each individual’s overall health, socioeconomic status, lifetime earnings, and other factors. Even marital status has an enormous impact on when and how retirees should proceed with their claiming strategies. But at the end of the day, the most important thing is for retirees to take care of their needs. “No matter what strategies are out there, if you need the money, go ahead and take it,” says Franklin. “Even if it's a reduced benefit at age 62. And . . . you might be able to reverse that decision by withdrawing your benefits or suspending your benefits later.”

Unique Rules for Divorce and Common-Law Marriage

Many are unaware that the Social Security Administration (SSA) outlines provisions for divorced retirees that allow them to collect benefits based on an ex-spouse’s earnings record. In addition to being eligible to receive Social Security retirement benefits, retirees must be:

  • Married for at least 10 years. Anything fewer than 10 years will automatically disqualify a retiree from claiming benefits from an ex-spouse. “Nine years, 11 months, and 29 days does not cut it,” Franklin says. “The only days that matter are the date of your marriage and the date of your final divorce decree.”
  • Divorced for at least two years. Even if a retiree is otherwise eligible to claim benefits from your ex-spouse, he or she can’t claim until two years from the divorce date.
  • Unmarried when they file their claims. If the previous two qualifications are met, retirees may claim Social Security retirement benefits from living ex-spouses if they have not remarried. But there is a provision for those with deceased ex-spouses: “If you remarry at age 60 or later, you can collect on a dead ex,” Franklin says. If you're going to take that second trip down the aisle, wait until 60 to do it.”

Some couples have nontraditional relationships with different implications when planning to claim Social Security retirement benefits. For instance, the SSA does not have federal guidelines for common-law marriages, but retirees can refer to state law for guidance. The rules for same-sex couples are slightly different, as many were together long before marriage equality was federally legalized in 2015. “There is an entire section on the Social Security webpage . . . that explains all the rights and benefits for same-sex couples,” says Franklin.

Take Control of the Planning Process Online

The one piece of information Franklin hopes to impart on her audience is simple: Familiarize yourself with the SSA website. “I think the first thing everyone 18 and older should do is go to www.SSA.gov and make sure you create a personal ‘my Social Security’ account,” she says. The process is simple, and the account will serve as retirees’ digital records of their lifetime wages, taxes paid into the Social Security and Medicare programs, and projected Social Security retirement benefit amounts.

This can be especially handy for retirees to ensure their reported wages are correct. “Everyone should be checking those records at least once a year to make sure your wages were reported correctly,” says Franklin, “because your future benefits are based on the earnings as they are reported.”

Knowledge Is Power

Regardless of their individual circumstances, retirees can never be too educated about their Social Security retirement benefit-claiming strategies. Many answers can be found on the SSA website, and retirees can always ask their financial professionals to guide them through the complexities. “We have all invested in this program,” says Franklin. “Educate yourself so we can get the most out of it.”

About Mary Beth Franklin

As a financial journalist with more than 40 years of experience and a Certified Financial Planner designation, Mary Beth writes about big-picture policy issues, such as the federal budget, tax legislation, and consumer-focused personal finance advice with a focus on Social Security. She has received numerous awards for her publications, and her work has been widely praised for helping both consumers and financial professionals build solid retirement-income plans.

About Caroline Elrod

Caroline is the manager of the Retirement Strategies Group within Pacific Life's Consumer Markets division, leading the home-office-based team. She brings more than 10 years of industry experience to her role, including experience in tax planning with insurance products. She enjoys providing retirement income-planning education—including practical strategies for business, estate, tax, and retirement-planning concerns—to financial professionals and their clients. 


Insurance products can be issued in all states, except New York, by Pacific Life Insurance Company and in all states by Pacific Life & Annuity Company. Product/material availability and features may vary by state.

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Pacific Life is unaffiliated with Mary Beth Franklin. Guest speakers are solely responsible for the content of their presentations and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Pacific Life and its affiliates. The views expressed herein are those of the speaker and are subject to change at any time.

This material is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as investment, tax, or legal advice. Information is based on current laws, which are subject to change at any time. Clients should consult with their accounting, legal, or tax professionals for guidance regarding their specific financial situations.

Pacific Life refers to Pacific Life Insurance Company and its subsidiary Pacific Life & Annuity Company. Insurance products can be issued in all states, except New York, by Pacific Life Insurance Company and in all states by Pacific Life & Annuity Company. Product/material availability and features may vary by state. Each insurance company is solely responsible for the financial obligations accruing under the products it issues.

The home office for Pacific Life & Annuity Company is located in Phoenix, Arizona. The home office for Pacific Life Insurance Company is located in Omaha, Nebraska.


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