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Social Security: It's not all gloom and doom

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It happens every year, just like the State of the Union address. The board of trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Federal Disability Insurance Trust Funds sends an update on how things are going to the president and Congress. This year’s report, released on May 31, is not exactly considered “light” reading at a hefty 254 pages.  It is the 73rd such document created by an ever-changing board of trustees. 

The release of this document is always a newsworthy event. Each year, it provides fresh insight into two of the most important government programs in existence in the United States. Statistical evidence in this report for year-end 2012 confirms that:

1. Social Security benefit payments are made to about 57 million people — 40 million retired workers and their dependents, 6 million survivors of deceased workers, and 11 million disabled workers and dependents of disabled workers.

2. Approximately 161 million people paid taxes into the Social Security system.

3. The Social Security system paid out $786 billion to covered workers.

To put things in perspective about the importance of this program, the number of people who voted for either President Obama or former Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012 is about equal to the number of people who pay taxes into the Social Security system.

The trustees’ report states that the system now pays out more in benefits than it receives from the combination of the FICA taxes and interest on its investments. The trustees project that the combined Retirement and Disability Trust Fund will be exhausted by 2033. By the way, the trustees’ report for 2011 reported the same thing. 

Doom and gloom? Is 2033 the end of the road for all the people paying into the system? Do advisors just tell their clients to take as much as they can from the system now, since it will all be gone by 2033?

Fortunately, the trustees’ report also offers a little good news! A very important quote from page four of the report states,  “At the time of reserve depletion, continuing income to the combined trust funds would be sufficient to pay 77 percent of scheduled benefits.”

Look at this from a different perspective. If nothing is done to fix the system, it will not be gone, but people will have to take 23 percent less in benefits. The good news is that there are many ways to fund the shortfall. Some of the ideas under consideration include increasing the full retirement age, increasing the FICA wage base, increasing the Social Security tax rate and/or reducing the payments by means-testing. Clearly, some combination of each will fix the problem and provide benefits for the next 75 years.

While congressional leaders ponder and debate the next steps and necessary changes in the evolution of the Social Security program, advisors need to be proactive with their clients now.

See also: Social Security insecurity: How advisors can help

Here are a few ideas that can help in the planning process:

  1. When making planning projections about Social Security for younger clients (those under 50), it is a good idea to use a benefit inflation rate of .05 percent to 1 percent, rather than the traditional 2 percent to 2.5 percent suggested by current planning models. The younger the client, the lower the rate. If the client is under 40, use a 0 percent benefit inflation rate. There will be many opportunities to revisit a plan for clients under 40 if the 0 percent inflation rate is too low.
  2. Increase the use of a Roth type of retirement savings account. Lowering the tax profile of a retirement income cash flow provides balance to the plan and can potentially increase the value of Social Security payments.
  3. Realistically project required needs for retirement and match guaranteed income sources to those needs. This will increase the need for the guaranteed values of annuity contracts to supplement potentially lower benefits from Social Security.
  4. Take advantage of the filing strategies available from Social Security. Delayed retirement credits of 8 percent per year should be leveraged if and when clients can fund the early years of retirement with resources from other sources. 
  5. Do not assume retirees don’t have a need for permanent life insurance. Life insurance creates new capital. When one partner dies, this new capital, created by the life policy death benefit, transforms into new income that, in turn, offsets the loss of Social Security. Owning permanent life insurance in a retirement plan provides a guaranteed hedge against lost Social Security benefits.

Remember that the number of people who vote for elected officials is about the same as those who pay into the Social Security system. It is clear Social Security benefits are here for the long-term because those voters like and depend on Social Security.  Changes are coming, but the basic integrity of the system is intact. 

Look for the trustees’ report at this time next year. We are moving in the right direction if the life of the trust fund extends to 2034, 2035, 2036 or beyond. On the other hand, if the numbers head lower, it is imperative to let our elected officials know the time to fix the problem must not be delayed. 

When you combine legislative corrections with individual initiative, retirement is really not a doom-and-gloom story. What is a doom-and-gloom story is failing to act at all. Advisors and their clients need to be active on both fronts to make sure that does not happen.

For more on Social Security, see:

The SSDI return-to-work gap

A respite for Medicare; Social Security no worse

Social Security, Medicare still face big challenge


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