Social Security is complicated. Trying to apply for benefits or getting answers about your claiming options is frustrating at best. Plus, filing for benefits is something you generally do one time and the costs of mistakes can be huge. Getting help from the Social Security Administration has been getting tougher as well.
In March 2018, Max Richtman, CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, illustrated the service issue in vivid detail before the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee. When he began his testimony, he first dialed the agency’s toll-free telephone number. Twenty-five minutes later his phone was still on hold. A recorded message said that his wait would be about an hour.
Visiting the local office isn’t much better. Since 2010, annual budget cuts have reduced the SSA’s staffing by 3,500 employees, and Congress has not confirmed a Social Security Administrator in the past five years. Funding under the 2019 federal budget would result in a further reduction of 1,000 more. Service slipping even further seems the only natural result.
DON’T TRY TO GET ADVICE FROM THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION
When it comes time to make your filing decision, you may think to visit the local SSA office to get help. Social Security personnel can tell you if you can file, how much you can get, and how to file. However, they do not provide financial advice nor are they qualified to do so. That means you may be missing out on certain claiming strategies that could better fit into your overall retirement plan and result in you getting more money.Consider the following true story:
Earlier in my career I used to carefully write recommendations for how a client should file for benefits. Then I sent those recommendations with the client to take to the local Social Security office for filing. What I found was that mistakes were regularly made despite the clearly written instructions.
In 2009, I advised a new client that had been receiving Social Security benefits since age 62 to withdraw his application and repay more than $100,000 he and his wife had cumulatively received. My client was to implement an alternative claiming strategy that would have allowed them to spend approximately $7,000 more every year, adjusted for inflation, yielding north of $150,000 of additional spending over their lifetimes. About a year later, I discovered the recommendation was not properly implemented and the client had lost out on approximately $12,000 he could not recover in unclaimed spousal benefits. This was despite having the recommendation written clearly in black and white and working with personnel from the local Social Security office. After this experience, and since Social Security now permits most benefit filings to be done online, my office handles the filing of all applications for our clients.
The rule utilized for the client described above was changed in 2010 and now limits your ability to withdraw your application and repay benefits. Today’s retirees can only change their mind within a 12-month period. That means more than ever you must get it right the first time.
Working with a knowledgeable financial planner that is not only familiar with the intricacies of Social Security but also an expert on how to incorporate Social Security planning strategies into your overall financial plan makes most sense. Your Social Security decision not only needs considered in the context of your planning but will materially impact your income planning, investment allocation, and tax plans in most cases.
The SSA is overloaded and under qualified to give advice. Unfortunately, most financial advisors tend to sell financial products, largely focus on investments, or do low-level planning at best. Yet, you owe it to yourself to find a qualified advisor who can help you make the most of your Social Security benefits, assist you in filing your application to ensure it gets done right, and help make your money last your lifetime.