Social Security is by far the nation's most important retirement program. And while the decision about when to claim benefits seems clear enough, it is anything but simple.

You can begin benefits as early as age 62 or wait until turning 70. The difference in monthly benefit payments is huge. For each $1 in benefits you'd get when claiming at age 66 (the so-called full retirement age for most people right now), you'd receive only 75 cents if you claimed at age 62, but $1.32 if you waited until age 70. Big difference.

If you're married, you and your spouse can do what's called "claim and suspend" benefits so that one of you can collect spousal benefits based on the benefit entitlements of the other spouse. Properly executed, these benefit payments will not reduce your own benefits or those of your spouse when they are claimed at a later date.

Looking only at these two components of the program, it's possible to craft a seemingly endless number of scenarios reflecting a person's age, marital, health, longevity and family considerations. A 401(k) program's wide choice of investment options and savings rates seems elementary by comparison. And as survey after survey has documented, most employees are baffled if not paralyzed by their 401(k)'s complexity. No wonder we struggle to make the best possible decisions about Social Security.

That's especially true about the decision to begin claiming benefits at 62. Sometimes, people who do so are unaware of the much higher benefits they would receive if they waited. It's also taken time for the reality of longevity gains to sink in to the assessments we make about our own mortality. Planning for a 30-year retirement rather than a 15- or 20-year period makes it much clearer why a later claiming age may make sense.

However, millions of Americans know all about these options and are still forced to begin taking Social Security at age 62. They need the money now, and waiting until 66 or even 70 is not a luxury they can afford. Often, early claimants work in physically demanding jobs and cannot continue working past 62. Or they may have lost their job altogether and can't find a new position. More likely, their new job doesn't pay nearly as well as the one they lost.

With few exceptions, the age you claim Social Security is irreversible. If we claim at age 62, we're stuck with those payments for the rest of our lives.

But what if that decision did not have such unyielding implications? What if we could claim early but not sacrifice all of our entitlements to the higher level of benefits provided to those who claim at later ages? And what if we could do this without costing Social Security an extra penny? It would be a pretty neat feat.

That's what Timothy Alan Albright thinks. The Michigan resident retired earlier this year as a Social Security district manager after nearly 35 years with the agency. He recently received $300 from the agency for submitting his idea to split Social Security benefits into layers of payments that could be taken at different ages.

"I propose that Americans be allowed to file for a portion of their retirement benefit early and save a portion of the benefits to be received in the future without a reduction," he wrote in an email describing his idea. "One possibility is to be allowed to file for reduced benefits based on 25 percent portions of their PIA [primary insurance amount]. A person might not need all of their retirement benefits at age 62 so they could file for 25 percent or 50 percent or 75 percent to begin with, and then phase in each of the other 25-percent portions at a future date."

"Allowing customers to receive partial or tiered benefits would be one of the first customer-friendly changes to Social Security rules in years," Albright adds. "It would have a widespread positive impact on our citizens' ability to plan prudently for their retirement years without locking themselves into an unnecessary low-income stream."

The idea would be relatively easy to program into agency computers, he explains, and would be budget-neutral as well. "If customers take benefits early, they are still reduced under the same formulas," he notes. "If they take benefits later in life, their life expectancy would be less."

"It brings Social Security into the 21st century," Albright concludes. "We ask that Americans take responsibility for planning for their retirement. This would give them another powerful tool. As it is now their retirement choice is an all or nothing proposition."

Twitter: @PhilMoeller

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