In 2021, the largest possible Social Security benefit is $3,895 per month. Chances are, you probably aren't eligible for it.
The maximum benefit goes up each year. If you aren't retiring for a while, it could be much higher by the time you do. But in all likelihood, you won't get the maximum benefit in the year you retire, either. If you want to try, there are three steps you need to take -- and you must complete all three of them.
1. Work at least 35 years
The Social Security Administration adjusts every year of your earnings for inflation and gives you benefits equaling a percentage of your career-average wages from the 35 years you earned the most.
To get the highest possible benefit, you need it to be based on the maximum possible average wage.
That means if you work for less than 35 years, you can't possibly get the maximum $3,895 per month. Your average wages couldn't be maxed out, due to the inclusion of years of $0 wages when it's calculated.
2. Earn a lot of money
You might be wondering why there's a maximum possible average wage. After all, people can earn tens of millions of dollars a year.
But there's actually a cap on the amount of wages counted when your average is determined. It's called the wage base limit. Anything you earn above it won't be subject to Social Security taxes -- or factored in when average wages are calculated.
Your benefits will end up being based on the maximum possible average wage only if you earn an amount equaling or exceeding the wage base limit over the entire 35 years counted in your calculation. You have to make a lot of money over a long period of time in order for that to happen.
The table below shows the wage base limits for the past 35 years. If your wages didn't equal or exceed that amount every year and those 35 years are the ones that count for you, you aren't going to get the maximum $3,895 monthly benefit.
Now, it's possible to have a career that lasts longer than 35 years. If that's the case, you could have some lower-earning years and still get the maximum benefit -- as long as they don't count as part of your calculation. For example, if you hit the target in almost all these years but made less than $68,400 in 1998, you could still be in line for the maximum monthly Social Security income if your earnings equaled or exceeded the wage base limit in 1986 or 1985, and so on.
3. Wait to claim Social Security at 70
Earning the maximum average annual wage will max out your standard benefit (or primary insurance amount). But maxing out your standard benefit still won't net you the maximum possible monthly Social Security income.
That's because you can raise your standard benefit amount by delaying your claim for benefits past your full retirement age (FRA).
Your FRA is between 66 and 2 months and 67 depending on your birth year. You can't claim benefits before it without seeing a reduction due to early filing penalties. And if you want the biggest benefit possible, you have to claim after it. Specifically, you need to wait until 70 because you can earn delayed retirement credits until then.
Delayed retirement credits raise the size of checks for each month you wait past FRA, ultimately boosting your standard benefit by a total of 8% annually per year of delay.
If you want the absolute largest Social Security check available, you must have earned the maximum taxable salary in at least 35 years and delayed your benefits claim to earn the maximum possible delayed retirement credits.
That's a tall order, but if you can pull it off, it comes with a handsome payoff.
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