Social Security’s maximum benefit is skyrocketing to $4,555 per month in 2023, up $361 from the 2022 maximum. That’s thanks to a historically high cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) that’s boosting all benefits next year. But those hoping to take home over $54,000 in annual benefits in 2023 might be disappointed.

The biggest checks come with the steepest requirements, and only an elite few ever meet them. If any of the three things below apply to you, you’re probably not on track for it.

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1. You haven’t worked for at least 35 years

The Social Security Administration bases your Social Security benefit on your income during your 35 highest-earning years. It determines these by taking the income you’ve paid Social Security taxes on during each year and multiplying it by an index factor for that year to account for inflation. 

Then, it takes your 35 highest-earning years, totals your inflation-adjusted income, and divides it by 420 — the number of months in 35 years. The result is your average indexed monthly earnings (AIME). The government then plugs your AIME into a formula, which varies depending on the year you first become eligible for Social Security, to determine your actual benefit.

The same rules apply if you’ve worked less than 35 years, with one key difference. You’ll have zero-income years factored into your benefit calculation, and that can reduce your AIME significantly. If your goal is to claim the largest Social Security checks, you need to work at least long enough to avoid this issue.

2. You don’t earn six figures

Only high earners achieve the maximum Social Security benefit. In 2022, you must have earned at least $147,000, adjusted for inflation, in at least 35 years to do this. In 2023, that rises to $160,200 in 35 different years. 

Again, there are adjustments for inflation, so it could still be possible to claim the top benefit even if you didn’t earn this much in some previous years. But if you’ve earned a low or average salary throughout your career, you shouldn’t expect the top benefit in 2023.

3. You’re not 70 years old yet

The final criteria for claiming the $4,555 Social Security benefit is to wait until you’re at least 70 years old before you apply for benefits. Waiting to claim boosts your benefit a little at a time.

The Social Security benefit the government calculates for you using your AIME is the amount you qualify for at your full retirement age (FRA). This is anywhere from 66 to 67, depending on your birth year. But many choose not to claim then. If you sign up earlier or later, the government runs an additional calculation that adjusts your final benefit up or down.

Claiming benefits before your FRA can shrink your checks up to 25% if your FRA is 66, or up to 30% if your FRA is 67. Every month you wait grows your check a little until you reach your maximum benefit at 70. That’ll give you 124% of your full benefit per check if your FRA is 67, or 132% if your FRA is 66.

Until you’ve reached 70, it’s not possible to claim the maximum benefit, even if you have earned the necessary income in at least 35 prior years. In this case, delaying benefits could be the smart move, assuming you expect to live for a while yet. Those with short life expectancies due to health issues or financial constraints which force them to rely upon Social Security for help with their bills may have to sign up sooner.

There is a silver lining

While most people won’t qualify for Social Security’s maximum benefit, you can still use the information above to boost your checks if you’re not claiming yet. And if you’re already receiving Social Security, you can look forward to an 8.7% increase next year without lifting a finger. Beginning in January, you’ll automatically receive your new, larger checks that will hopefully help ease the pain of inflation a little.

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