Maximizing your Social Security benefits isn't easy, especially since there are hundreds of rules governing payments alone. But since most retired Americans depend primarily on Social Security, it's important to get everything you're entitled to.

"Claiming benefits early frequently costs people hundreds of thousands of dollars in reduced benefits over their lifetime," says Philip Moeller, co-author of "Get What's Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security" (Simon & Schuster, 2016). "Failure to claim benefits at all is also a big problem."

While the rules are complex, there are some simple guidelines that you can follow to maximize the amount of money you’ll receive.

Planning Tip: Create a free, mySocialSecurity account for access to your personalized Social Security statement, which includes estimates of your future benefits. You also can use it to verify earnings history, on which Social Security benefits calculation are based. 

• Wait to Tap Into Your Social Security Benefits
While you’re allowed to start taking Social Security at age 62, it’s a good idea to wait until you’re 70 to start. According to a recent survey by Nationwide Retirement Institute, a research arm of the giant insurer, 30 percent of pre-retirees expect to draw Social Security before their full retirement age. But about a quarter of those who tapped into Social Security early say they now regret doing so. That’s because your retirement benefit grows every year that you wait. If you’re currently at the full retirement age of 66, for instance, waiting until you’re 70 years old to claim will raise your retirement benefit a guaranteed 8 percent annually. You can use the Social Security’s Retirement Estimator to figure out how much you’ll gain by waiting until age 70.

• Claim a Spousal Benefit
If you didn’t pay into Social Security for at least 40 quarters (10 years) but your spouse did—or your earnings were less than your spouse's, you can gain from claiming a spousal benefit. The amount can be up to half of what the working spouse is entitled to at full retirement age. The amount you receive has no impact on the payment your spouse will receive. Keep in mind that you can only claim the spousal benefit if your spouse has already filed for a retirement or disability benefit.

• Decide Whether to Claim a Spousal Benefit If Both Spouses Worked
If you both worked but your spouse made significantly more income, you may want to claim the spousal benefit instead of taking your own retirement benefit—it could turn out to be more. Or, you could sign a "restricted application" to claim just your spousal benefit now, and wait ‘til full retirement age or older to claim your own retirement benefit, which by that time may be greater. By indicating that intent on your Social Security benefits application, you'll be able to switch back to your retirement benefit when the time is right. (This option is only available to people who turned 62 before January 2 of this year.) The Social Security Administration offers a calculator that can help you figure your spousal benefit. Two calculators, Social Security Choices and Maximize My Social Security (each costs $40 for consumers to use), can help you to analyze the best way to take Social Security payments for a couple, rather than just an individual.

• Don't Claim Social Security Benefits Early If You’re Still Working
Unless you need Social Security benefits to cover your expenses while you are still working, it's better not to claim early. If you do, you won't be entitled to as much as you would have received had you waited to claim at full retirement age. Also, a portion of your monthly benefit will be withheld on earnings over $15,720. Once you reach full retirement age (age 66 or 67 depending on when you were born), your monthly benefits are adjusted upward to account for the money that was withheld while you were working.

• Claim Your Ex-Spouse’s Social Security Benefits
Even if you are divorced, you can still claim spousal benefits based on the earnings record of your ex-spouse, as long as both of you are 62 or older and you were married for 10 years or more. Your ex-spouse cannot oppose this and does not have to claim Social Security in order for you to make your claim, as long as you’ve been divorced for at least two years, and you are not currently married. And your benefit has no effect on what your ex-spouse or his or her new spouse receives in benefits.

At full retirement age you can file a restricted application to get your spousal benefit; wait until age 70 to collect your retirement benefit, which will have grown in the interim. (Again, you only can use the restricted application option if you were born on or before January 1, 1954.)

If you remarry, you can no longer collect the spousal benefit based on your former spouse’s work record. If you remain single, you can continue to collect indefinitely.