The Journey: Survey reveals knowledge gap about claiming Social Security

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

October 19, 2015

Most adults flunked several questions about Social Security in a new survey, but the toughest ones weren’t even on the test.

Just 39 percent of Americans 45 to 64 surveyed by AARP said Social Security benefits will make up at least half of their future retirement income, though the advocacy group says nearly 6 in 10 elderly people rely on the benefits for half or more of their household income.

More than two-thirds underestimated how much their benefit would increase if they waited until full retirement age to claim. (The actual amount varies by birth year). Just five in 100 knew the exact percentage increase they would get by waiting from age 62 to full retirement age.

And among people who are or have been married, 80 percent didn’t know the correct age to claim in order to maximize benefits for a surviving spouse after the primary beneficiary dies. (Generally, the answer is 70, but an individual’s circumstances might mean that maximizing survivor benefits isn’t the best course of action.)

Meanwhile, the Financial Planning Association polled about 1,200 of its members who hold certified financial planner designations about their clients’ Social Security behaviors. When polled, about half of consumers and about 40 percent of planners said Social Security will be a major source of retirement income.

But when further pressed to define that, the two groups parted ways. While 39 percent of consumers said it will make up more than half of income, 94 percent of advisers said it will represent less than half of their clients’ income, not surprising given that as a group advisers tend to work with more affluent people.

So, what wasn’t on the test? For one, How is a pre-retiree supposed to choose a claiming strategy among the millions of possibilities?

The reality is this is a test that’s vastly more complicated than others because of the labyrinth of Social Security rules.

"The right answer may not always be the right answer, which is why I shudder when I hear people give general advice," said Ed Gjertsen, president of the Financial Planning Association. Even if beneficiaries learned all of the millions of permutations involved in calculating benefits — think age gap and income gap between spouses, rules about survivors, and situations where a worker might have spent years in uncovered jobs — they still can’t make a "correct" claiming decision because they lack one thing: Knowledge of how long they’ll live.

"Unless you can flip people on their heads and see an expiration date, you won’t know until hindsight if it was the right choice," he said. "So you try to do what you know is the right decision at the right time, not because your neighbor does it or you think the Social Security trust fund is running out."

Do-it-yourselfers can find benefit calculators online, but make sure it can handle your particular situation and always double check your understanding with a local Social Security office. If you’re getting advice from a professional, ask about the method used to come up with any strategy, and run that by a Social Security rep as well.

And speaking of the right answer not being the right answer, that came through in another question asking consumers about their knowledge of the Social Security earnings test.

AARP said "42 percent of people (who know their benefits can be reduced by the earnings test) know that they will get those benefits back over time."

In fact, however, there are situations when that wouldn’t happen, including widows who switch at full retirement age or later to take benefits on their own work record.

"The details of any research report can be spun in any direction, but the overarching result is not a surprise," said Marc S. Freedman, a financial planner familiar with the surveys. "Way too many Americans are electing to take benefits at 62 and a year or two in regretting the decision."