Florida Elder Law & Estate Planning Blog

Do your Social Security homework before you apply for benefits!

Older Couple Social Security

If you are relying solely on the Social Security Administration staff or its website to help you determine when and how to take benefits, you should probably do a little more research.

The General Accounting Office just released its analysis of how effectively the Social Security Administration advises applicants. The report, provided to the Senate Special Committee on Aging, shows the agency could do better. After observing several staff-applicant interactions at field offices and studying the agency’s website, the GAO concluded that claimants do not always get accurate advice. This can lead to you potentially missing out on thousands of dollars in available benefits.

Social Security rules are anything but simple. Many people do not understand how monthly benefits are calculated; the dollar value of delaying benefits; the retirement earning test; and how to best coordinate benefits with a spouse. The GAO found that agency staff do not reliably discuss these critical issues with applicants, or provide accurate information when they do. Apparently, some staffers find the rules befuddling, too – or perhaps are sometimes too pressured to get down in the weeds with claimants. (I recently visited a local Social Security office to take care of some business and found people waiting many hours to speak with someone. And these were the people who had called ahead for appointments.)

People who apply online get better information, the GAO found. But even the online process does not effectively guide claimants to their best choices. For example, the GAO found that the impact of longevity on benefits is not properly factored into the online calculations. Nor does the online process inform users that benefits are based on the highest 35 years of earnings.

As in all things, you have to be your own advocate. My advice is to gather information from other sources; then, you will have a better idea of what you should be asking about when you do go to the Social Security Administration. There is some excellent software available to help you do this. Some of it is free, some not. Here are some suggestions from around the web:

Financial Engines Social Security Retirement Calculator    E$Planner 
Maximize My Social Security
Social Security Solutions

And of course, there is always the local library.