Part of the secret to a long(er) and healthier retirement might be the help you can provide retirement plan participants in understanding the timing of Social Security – a relatively simple waiting game that can result in significantly improved benefits.

The BMO Retirement Institute recently issued a report backing up the fact that most Americans don’t understand how Social Security works and, as they approach retirement age, too many of them subsequently draw benefits too early and end up costing themselves in the long run.

“Retirees Not Maximizing Social Security Retirement Benefits” made that issue painfully obvious by noting that 91 percent of respondents surveyed said they understand that waiting longer increases the monthly benefit they’ll receive, yet nearly half admitted they’re either collecting benefits already or are planning to draw benefits before the full retirement age.

The danger, the report notes, is especially poignant for couples, as a claim by one partner can impact both for the computations of their combined lifespan and can seriously impact spousal and/or widow benefits.

“With factors such as the volatile stock market, longer life expectancy, rising health care costs and fewer defined benefit pensions, Social Security may play an even bigger role in ensuring retirement security for the next wave of retirees,” said Stephen Williams, vice president of U.S. financial strategy for BMO Private Bank.

“It’s vital that retirees do their research and seek out expert advice so they can make informed decisions to maximize their benefits. After all, they paid into the program – why not take full advantage of it?”

BMO’s study also suggests that the decisions regarding the proper time to draw benefits aren’t particularly easy ones, nor is the information regarding the best strategy to maximize benefits all that clear for every pre-retiree. So many simultaneous decisions take place on the cusp of retirement that many Americans just simply opt to take their benefits at 62 as a knee-jerk reaction, the study also found.

Some 52 percent of respondents said they were not knowledgable about general strategies on bettering their Social Security benefits, and 62 percent have not actively sought out any information – and 60 percent haven’t even talked about the issue with anyone.

Those surveyed also admitted that they were largely unaware (49 percent) of the exact nature of Social Security spousal benefits and (56 percent) widow benefits – which can be a major income supplement for retiree survivors as they can get up to 50 percent of a spouse’s benefits and widows can receive the full amount of a deceased spouse’s benefits.

The upshot to the BMO research is that a signficant opportunity exists for retirement and financial advisors to include a Social Security benefits strategy discussion as part of a comprehensive look at retirement planning – the survey revealing, unfortunately, that only 54 percent of retirees have a formal plan, and just 42 percent of 45- to 54-year-olds have done full retirement planning with a professional.