On the fence about starting Social Security early? Consider this

Starting benefits now can enable you to enjoy perks now and larger checks later on in retirement

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit cash-strapped seniors hard. Many have watched their retirement portfolios plummet, and they've been unable to make up for it because they cannot go to work to earn more money. Unemployment and stimulus checks help a little, but those 62 and older have another place they can turn to for extra money -- Social Security.

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The problem is that starting benefits before your full retirement age (FRA) -- 66 or 67, depending on your birth year -- reduces the size of your checks permanently. But there is one way you can claim your checks and grow them too. You're allowed to start benefits now and then withdraw them without affecting the size of your checks when you officially start claiming benefits later, but there are a few catches.

How to claim Social Security benefits without permanently shrinking your checks

The Social Security Administration enables you to claim Social Security at any time after your 62nd birthday, assuming you've worked enough or married someone who worked enough to qualify for benefits. Once you've applied, you have one year to withdraw your application by filling out this form and sending it to your local Social Security Administration office. If you're able to do this and pay back all the benefits you've received thus far, it will be as if you've never claimed Social Security benefits. You can wait to restart benefits until you're older, and every month you delay Social Security will increase your checks.

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This strategy can help seniors who just need a little extra help until they're able to get back to work. You can use what you need to get you by right now and hold the rest in a savings account so you have it when you're ready to pay it back to the government. Then, you can set aside money from your paychecks when you're working again to cover the amount you spent. But there are a few things you should know before you do this.

First, this is a one-time deal. It's not something you can use whenever you get in a pinch. You get one chance to withdraw your Social Security benefits, and then the next time you begin claiming, that's it. So think carefully before deciding if it's the right move for you. If you start claiming benefits and submit a withdrawal application, and then later decide you don't want to withdraw benefits, you can cancel your withdrawal request within 60 days.

Second, as I mentioned above, you have to repay all the money you've received from Social Security in order to withdraw benefits. This means all the money you received, plus all the money your spouse or qualifying children received. If you're on Medicare and you have money withheld for premiums, you'll have to pay those back too. Any garnished benefits also need to go back to the government, even if you never actually saw that money when you were receiving checks. This isn't always an easy feat, and it means you'll have to persuade anyone else receiving checks on your work record to give up benefits too because you can't withdraw your Social Security application without their written consent.

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Third, if you're not able to pay back every penny you've gotten in benefits or you've already reached your full retirement age, you may not withdraw your application. But you can ask the government to suspend your benefits once you reach full retirement age.

Suspend Social Security benefits at full retirement age as a backup

Suspending Social Security benefits once you reach your full retirement age or at any time between then and your 70th birthday enables you to earn delayed retirement credits that increase the size of your checks. You can request suspension of benefits orally or in writing at your local Social Security Administration office. If you do this, the Social Security Administration will stop sending you monthly checks and automatically start sending them again once you turn 70 -- the age people earn their maximum amount of delayed retirement credits -- unless you request your benefits restart earlier.

If you claimed benefits under your full retirement age, suspending benefits temporarily won't net you as much money as you would've gotten if you didn't claim benefits at all until you were past full retirement age, but when you start Social Security checks again, your checks will be larger than they were before.

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When you suspend benefits, anyone else claiming Social Security on your work record will not be able to receive benefits either until you begin claiming again. You'll also receive bills for your Medicare premiums since they cannot come out of your Social Security checks. Suspending Social Security benefits also renders you ineligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), at least until you're receiving Social Security again.

You may prefer to start Social Security early and just stay on it if you need the financial support, but if you're worried about short-changing yourself, consider starting benefits now to get you by and then either withdrawing your application or suspending benefits at your full retirement age. This way, you can enjoy some benefits now and larger checks later on in retirement.

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