Social Security statements make a comeback

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailUntil a few years ago, Social Security sent annual statements to just about everybody who was still working to let them know what they could expect to receive in retirement, survivor and disability benefits (minus a 25% or so haircut if Congress never gets its act together to fix the system). Those statements got axed by budget cuts, but now Congress wants them resumed.

Here’s the scoop from Reuters columnist Mark Miller:

Starting this September, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will resume mailings at five-year intervals to workers who have not signed up to view their statements online, an agency spokesman told Reuters. The statements will be sent to workers at ages 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55 and 60, he said, adding the agency would continue to promote use of the online statements.

We won’t be getting these in the Weston household, since we signed up for online accounts. (If you decide to go that route, note that some people have had trouble setting up their Social Security accounts because they have security freezes on their credit reports at Experian, the bureau that Social Security uses to verify identity. Investment News columnist Mary Beth Franklin says you’ll have to unfreeze your report, or visit a Social Security office in person with a government-issued ID to set up an online account.)

Social Security tends to be a pretty vague concept for most people until they start closing in on retirement age–or they’re unlikely enough to need its survivor or disability benefits. But the system contributes half or more of most people’s retirement income, so it’s worth knowing what you’ve been promised. Perhaps knowing might even inspire you to lean on your lawmakers to get the system’s problems fixed while there’s still time.


You may not be as smart as you think you are

Portrait Of Senior Couple In ParkMost people are better off delaying the start of their Social Security benefits as long as possible. That’s the consensus of the AARP, financial planners and researchers who have studied the thousands of different claiming options. In fact, the benefits of putting off Social Security have grown in recent years, thanks to low interest rates, gains in longevity and changes in the law since the 1990s.

Still, every time I pass along the advice that waiting is better, I hear from those who just refuse to believe it. They focus on breakeven points rather than longevity risk; they don’t factor in spousal or survivor benefits; they underestimate how much their benefit can grow with even a few years’ delay.

So when Financial Engines approached me with the results of a recent survey, I just nodded my head in recognition. Their poll found that most people nearing retirement are confident that they can make smart Social Security claiming decisions–but that most do poorly on a test that measures their understanding of basic Social Security claiming concepts. You can read more about it in my column this week for Bankrate, “Are you Social Security smart? Guess again.”

My best advice is that before you claim Social Security, use some of the software tools that are available to help you evaluate your options. The AARP has a good calculator here. If you want to play with the numbers and assumptions a bit more, has software that will really let you get your geek on; a one-year license is $40. You also can talk to a fee-only financial planner who is savvy about claiming strategies.

Here are two things you should know:

1. If you’re married (and that includes you same-sex couples, if you file in a state that legally recognizes your marriage), you have unique opportunities to maximize your lifetime benefits and protect your surviving spouse from poverty. The difference between the best claiming strategies and the worst can be $250,000. No, that’s not a typo.

2. Social Security is not going to disappear. The program is simply too popular and its problems, though real, are not insurmountable. Even if Congress does nothing, the system can still pay out 75% of the benefits promised just from the taxes it will collect. If Congress does do something, the changes almost certainly won’t affect near-retirees but will instead change benefits for younger taxpayers. Signing up for benefits as soon as you’re eligible in order to “lock in” your checks will just lock you in to a much lower payment, for life.

If you’re one of those people who likes to dive into the academic research surrounding claiming strategies, here are a few articles to check out:

“Recent Changes in the Gains from Delaying Social Security.” This article in the Journal of Financial Planning demonstrates how changes in interest rates, longevity and the benefit formula have dramatically improved the benefits from delaying Social Security claims.

How the Social Security Claiming Decision Affects Portfolio Longevity.” Researchers William Meyer and William Reichenstein have done a lot of research on Social Security claiming strategies, and in this Journal of Financial Planning article they use a sophisticated model that factors in taxes to weigh how delaying Social Security can help retirees make their savings last longer.

Should You Buy an Annuity from Social Security?” This brief from Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research explains why it often makes sense to tap retirement savings so that you can delay the start of Social Security benefits.

When Should Married Men Claim Social Security?” This article, also from the Center for Retirement Research, should be required reading for any married couple thinking of starting benefits early. It does a great job of summarizing potential spousal and survivor benefits–and of making the point that starting too early can leave your surviving spouse in a world of hurt.

Don’t obsess about Social Security “breakeven”

Dear Liz: I read your recent article in which you advised waiting before starting Social Security benefits. Is this good advice for everyone? You probably know that there is a break-even age around 85, so that if you die before 85, starting benefits early is better, but if you die after 85, starting late is better. “Better” means you receive more money. So, right off the bat the advice to delay is wrong for half the people in their 60s, since about half will die before the crossover, and if they had delayed, they lost money.

Answer: The problem with do-it-yourself financial planning is that people often focus their attention too narrowly and ignore the bigger picture. That’s what leads them to do things like pay down relatively low-rate student loan debt while failing to save for retirement. They may focus only on the expected returns of each option, while ignoring the tax implications, company retirement matches and the extraordinary value of future compounding of returns.

Obsessing about the break-even point — the date when the income from larger, delayed retirement benefits outweighs what you’d get from starting early — is often a mistake, financial planners will tell you. There are a number of other considerations, including the value of Social Security benefits as longevity insurance. If you live longer than you expect, a bigger Social Security check can be enormously helpful later in life when your other assets may be spent. Also, if you have a spouse who may be dependent on your benefit as a survivor, delaying retirement benefits to increase your checks will reduce the blow when she has to live on just one check (yours) instead of two (yours and her spousal benefit).

In his book “Social Security for Dummies,” author Jonathan Peterson offers a guide to figuring out your break-even point based just on the dollars you can expect to receive (rather than on assumed inflation or investment returns). In general, the break-even point is about age 78. That means those who live longer would be better off waiting until full retirement age, currently 66, than if they started early at age 62.

Currently, U.S. men at age 65 can expect to live to nearly 83, and the life expectancy for U.S. women at age 65 is over 85.

You can change that break-even by making assumptions about inflation and your future prowess as an investor, but remember that the increase in benefits you get each year by delaying retirement between age 62 and 66 is about 7%. It’s 8% for delaying between age 66 and age 70, when your benefit maxes out. Those are guaranteed returns, and there’s no “safe return” anywhere close to that in today’s environment.

Don’t forget that those benefits will be further compounded by cost-of-living increases. One researcher published in the Journal of Financial Planning found that an investor would have to achieve a rate of return that exceeds inflation by 5% to justify taking benefits at 62 rather than at full retirement age.

“At higher inflation rates and/or higher marginal tax rates, the rate of return may need to be even higher, perhaps in excess of 7% or 8% above inflation to justify taking benefits at age 62,” wrote Doug Lemons, a certified financial planner who retired from the Social Security Administration after 36 years.

You can read Lemons’ paper, as well as other research that planners have done on maximizing Social Security benefits, at

Divorced spousal benefits cause confusion

Dear Liz: You’ve been writing about Social Security and how people can qualify for benefits based on a spouse’s or ex-spouse’s earnings record. Please add that given the parameters you already cite, a divorced spouse may remarry after the age of 60 and collect Social Security from the ex. However, if a person is collecting a public pension, any Social Security, whether one’s own or that of the former spouse, will be offset, possibly to the extent that one cannot collect anything from that former spouse. It is important to have all of the information.

Answer: It is indeed — but you’re incorrect about the availability of divorced spouse benefits after remarriage.

Only spouses or ex-spouses who are receiving survivors’ benefits may remarry after 60 without worrying about losing their checks. If the primary earner is still alive, the rules are different. Here’s what Social Security has to say on its website: “Generally, we cannot pay benefits if the divorced spouse remarries someone other than the former spouse, unless the latter marriage ends (whether by death, divorce or annulment), or the marriage is to a person entitled to certain types of Social Security auxiliary or survivor’s benefits.”

People who are eligible for pensions from the government or from a job not covered by Social Security should learn about the offsets that affect their benefit. The Social Security website has information about these offsets at Information also is available by calling 1-800-772-1213.

Spousal vs. survivor benefits: the key differences

Dear Liz: I am 66 years old. When I was 60, my husband of 42 years died. He was a banker with more than 40 years of work history at a good income level. I remarried a year later. When I was 62, I was downsized and took early Social Security benefits based on my first husband’s earnings record. This amounts to about $2,000 a month. It would have been about $2,500 at full retirement age (66) and about $3,000 at age 70. I was not advised about survivor’s benefits at all or about any variance of survivor’s benefits versus Social Security based on my deceased husband’s earnings. Do you think I would have gotten a bigger benefit amount if I had taken survivor’s benefits at age 62?

Answer: No, because survivor’s benefits are what you’re getting.

Both spousal benefits and survivor’s benefits are based on the earnings record of the other person in a couple (whom we’ll call the “primary earner”). The maximum spousal check is 50% of the primary worker’s benefit. As with other Social Security benefits, the amount you get is permanently discounted if you apply before your own full retirement age.

Spousal benefits are available to current and former spouses, although former spouses must have been married for at least 10 years to the primary earner and must be currently single. (In other words, you can’t have remarried, unless that marriage has ended as well.)

Survivor’s benefits, on the other hand, can be up to 100% of the primary worker’s benefit. Survivor’s benefits based on a deceased spouse’s earnings record are not available to those who remarry before age 60, but can be claimed by those who remarry after that point.

Since the biggest Social Security benefit is around $2,500 a month and you’ve remarried, it’s clear that what you’re getting is the survivor’s benefit, discounted because you applied early.

Spousal vs. survivor benefits: a primer

Dollar mazeJudging from emails and comments, plenty of people are confused about how Social Security benefits for spouses and ex-spouses are supposed to work. That’s unfortunate, since these benefits can help many people get larger checks than what their own earnings record will give them. If you are or ever have been married to someone whose earnings are substantially greater than your own, you need to know how this works.

First, some basics. Spousal and survivor benefits are based on the work record of what I’m calling the “earner” (the other spouse). You can’t get both your own benefit (based on your work record) AND a full spousal or survivor benefits on top of that. You typically get the largest benefit for which you qualify. (In some cases, you’ll get your own benefit plus an amount that together equals the largest benefit for which you qualify.)

Here are a few key points:

Spousal benefits (for current and former spouses) are based on 50% of the earner’s benefit at the earner’s full retirement age. Full retirement age is currently 66 and will be 67 for people born after 1960. If the spouse applies for benefits before the spouse’s own full retirement age, the benefit will be permanently discounted.

  • If you’re currently married, the earner must have already applied for Social Security benefits for you to apply for spousal benefits. The earner does have the option to “file and suspend,” where the earner applies for benefits and then immediately suspends the application. That allows the spouse to apply for spousal benefits while the earner’s benefit can be left alone to grow.
  • If you’re divorced (but were married at least 10 years and haven’t remarried), the earner needn’t have applied to start Social Security benefits but the earner needs to be at least 62. If you remarry, you can’t apply for benefits as a divorced spouse unless that subsequent marriage ends.

Spousal benefits don’t reduce what the earner receives (or what other current and former spouses may receive).

If you wait until your own full retirement age to apply, you can start receiving spousal benefits and then switch to your own benefit when it maxes out at age 70. For high earners, this “claim now, claim more later” can add tens of thousands of dollars to the lifetime amounts you receive from Social Security. If you start benefits early, however, that option isn’t available to you.

Survivors benefits (for current and former spouses) can be up to 100% of the earner’s Social Security benefit. If the earner hadn’t begun receiving Social Security checks, the survivor’s benefit is based on what the earner would receive at full retirement age. If the earner was receiving Social Security when he or she died, the survivor’s benefit is based on that amount the earner was actually receiving. (This is why it’s often smart for the bigger earner to delay starting Social Security at least until full retirement age, if not longer, especially if the earner’s survivor will depend on that benefit.)

As with other Social Security benefits, applying for survivor benefits before you reach your own full retirement age will result in a reduced check. However, with survivor’s benefits, you can receive a reduced check as early as age 60. (The earliest you can get spousal benefits is 62.) The starting age is even earlier—50—if you are disabled and the disability started before or within 7 years of the worker’s death, or at any age if you take care of the deceased earner’s child who is under age 16 or is disabled and receives benefits on the worker’s record.

Unlike spousal benefits, a late remarriage won’t cut off your checks. If you remarry after you reach age 60 (or age 50 if you’re disabled), that marriage will not affect your eligibility for survivors benefits.

AARP has a primer about how to maximize your Social Security benefits that’s well worth reading. T. Rowe Price has a free calculator to help you determine the best time to take benefits. If you want a more robust tool, check out for a $40 version that allows you to play with more