In recent weeks you might have seen a couple very aggravating headlines floating around your news and social media feeds:
“Social Security Administration Underpaid Widows!”
“Bad Advice From Social Security Costs Underpaid Beneficiaries Millions!”
Now, you know I caution my clients against taking every financial headline they see at face value. But unfortunately, these stories were reporting on a real story that hit some folks really hard.
Today I’d like to delve into these underpaid benefits issues at the Social Security Administration and raise a couple points that just about anyone who is retired or about to retire should be aware of when it comes to your entitled benefits.
Your benefits are not your spouse’s.
Here’s the story:
The Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General performed an internal audit to determine if the SSA was informing claimants that they were allowed to delay taking their personal benefits until age 70 while also accepting their widow’s or widower’s benefits. This is a common misconception: just because you start receiving one set of Social Security benefits from a deceased spouse, that doesn’t mean you have to start taking your own personal benefits as well.
Unfortunately, the result of the audit was a resounding No. Not only was the SSA not giving widows and widowers this crucial piece of information when they were filing for benefits, they didn’t even have controls in place to alert employees that they SHOULD be telling folks they have an option to delay.
The Inspector General’s report concluded that the SSA underpaid over 9,000 widows and widowers more than $130 million in benefits to which they were lawfully entitled. And if that’s not bad enough, the report also projected that almost 2,000 more seniors will be underpaid by more than $9 million annually when they do reach age 70.
When is the right time to take Social Security?
Deciding when to take your and your spouse’s Social Security benefits is one of the most important decisions you’ll make about your retirement plan. In general, unless you need your Social Security benefits to pay your day-to-day expenses and bills, most retirees are better off delaying Social Security until age 70 to maximize the size of the benefit.
But as I discussed in a recent blog on this topic, there are pros and cons to claiming your benefits earlier or later. Some folks want to retire early and need early Social Security benefits to make that dream come true. Others plan on moving when they do retire and use early benefits to fix up the family home before a sale. You also might have unique savings and investment scenarios that would enable you to put your benefits to work for you now. In these cases, your Social Security benefits might not be underpaid if you take them early –you’d be getting maximum value right now.
Widows and widowers present another unique situation. I’ll say it one more time: if your spouse dies and you claim survivor’s benefits, you do NOT have to take your personal benefits as well. But was your spouse working a part-time job in retirement or running a small business? Do you need your benefits to cover that income loss? Or do you need extra money to sell your home and move closer to your family? Maybe you do need to take your benefits as well.
Also, many divorced retirees don’t know that if you were married for at least ten years and are currently unmarried, you might also qualify for survivor’s benefits if your ex dies. That’s another piece of important info that might be tough to clear up with a phone call to the SSA.
You are more than your numbers.
The best time to take Social Security is whenever it is best for your unique retirement plan. And the Social Security Administration doesn’t know anything about that plan. They know your age, they know how much you’ve contributed to Social Security, and they can tell you if you’re eligible for a benefit or not. But they cannot tell you how to get the best use out of those benefits for your particular situation. At the end of the day, when the random SSA employee who answers your call looks you up, all that employee sees is numbers on a page and boxes to be checked.
If you have questions about Social Security, Medicare, or any other part of your retirement plan, call up your fiduciary advisor before you call up the government. Talk to someone who really takes the time to understand your situation, not just your numbers. If my team at Keen Wealth can’t answer a question for you, we’ll put you in touch with a trustworthy professional who can.
We don’t plan for numbers at Keen Wealth, we plan for people – for their lives, for the passions and adventures that are going to make their retirement worthwhile, and for the beneficiaries who are going to carry their legacies into the next generation. We help our clients get the most out of their retirement planning so that, when the time is right, they’ll get the most out of retirement too.
Bill Keen is a CHARTERED RETIREMENT PLANNING COUNSELOR℠ and independent financial advisor with more than 25 years of industry experience. As the founder and CEO of Keen Wealth Advisors, a registered investment advisory firm, he specializes in providing personalized retirement planning designed to help people thrive before and during their retirement years. With a passion for educating others, Bill regularly blogs about retirement planning, hosts the podcast Keen on Retirement, and has contributed to U.S. News and World Report, Reuters, Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch, Yahoo Finance, and other publications. Based in Overland Park, Kansas, Bill and his team work with clients throughout the greater Kansas City area and across the nation. To learn more, connect with him on LinkedIn or visit www.keenwealthadvisors.com.
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