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Social Security Planning: A New Angle for Your Senior Clients

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This summer we hired a market research firm to survey 532 married couples age 60-66 in an effort to gauge their knowledge of Social Security election strategies and their expectations when it comes to SS advice. Here are a few highlights:

  • 77 percent of people would expect to receive claiming advice from a Social Security representative (which is interesting because they are precluded from providing advice, particularly when it comes to maximizing family benefits)
  • 84 percent of people would expect claiming advice to be free and 92 percent would expect to pay less than $100
  • 73 percent of people were unaware of creative claiming options such as the file and suspend and the restricted application
  • 57 percent would expect their financial advisor to be able to analyze these options
  • And, 57 percent would look to an outside advisor if their current one couldn’t perform a Social Security analysis.

We feel that the retirement market is ripe for advisors to begin offering Social Security planning as a core service. But first, a little background.

Why is Social Security So Important?

The Social Security election decision, especially for married couples, is one of the most important decisions your clients will make in retirement. The stakes are high, with the difference between the best and worst election decision usually falling the range of $20,000, $40,000 or even $100,000 (today’s dollars).

When you consider that Social Security makes up, on average, 64.8 percent of total income for recipient households with someone aged 65 or older, according to the Social Security Administration, it’s easy to see that this is a decision you want to make sure your clients get right.

Furthermore, Social Security is completely unique in that it is the only asset that insures against all three main retirement risks: inflation, market (sequence risk) and longevity. It’s adjusted annually for inflation, it’s tax-advantaged, it will pay as long as you live and it’s backed by a government promise.  Further, According to Larry Kotlikoff of Boston University, it’s approximately 40 percent cheaper to “buy more” Social Security than to buy a commercial annuity. Simply put, Social Security is the best annuity money can buy. The fact of the matter is that for most people, even when maximized, Social Security is not enough. There is a need for additional guaranteed retirement income.  

The Social Security Planning Opportunity

Yet, despite its importance, today’s retirees and pre-retirees know surprisingly little about the mechanics of Social Security and how they can maximize their benefit. Even more troubling, retirees are unsure of whom to turn to for advice when making this complex decision.   

Consider these statistics, gathered from a survey of 532 married people age 60-66 conducted by Senior Market Sales and MarketTools:

  • Only 27 percent of people are aware of unusual election strategies like file and suspend and restricted application. A Boston College study estimated that Americans leave $10 billion in Social Security benefits on the table by not taking advantage of these strategies.
  • 77 percent of people think they can go to the Social Security office for advice, when in fact SSA personnel are not trained or equipped to dispense anything more than monthly benefit amounts at different election ages, and the SSA actually prohibits its representatives from dispensing advice.

In short, the vast majority of your clients don’t even know that Social Security planning strategies exist and don’t know where to turn for the complex analysis that is required to make the right decision.

This is where the opportunity for advisors begins to emerge. In the same survey, when told about unusual claiming options, 57 percent of respondents said they would expect their financial planner to help them analyze their options and make the right decision. The same percentage of people said they would actually look for a new advisor if their current one couldn’t help them with Social Security. 

How Long will the Opportunity Last?

That is why it is key to jump into an emerging market like this early. Late adopters run the risk of falling behind their competition and potentially losing business because they don’t offer a service that is so fundamentally important to their clients’ overall financial picture. With battered portfolios and fears of outliving their money, your clients are hungry for advice on how to maximize their Social Security. They’re unsure of where to turn, but they’re beginning to look to the financial industry for help. 

Joe Elsasser, CFP, RHU, REBC is a certified financial planner in Omaha, Neb. He can be reached at [email protected]