If you’ve asked the Social Security Administration for advice recently, you might want to reconfirm their recommendations. A new study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) shows that Social Security Administration (SSA) staff members regularly give incorrect or incomplete advice when asked for insight into claiming strategies.

The report, requested by the Senate Select Committee on Aging in 2015, was intended to find out two things:

  • How well people understand the Social Security rules that impact their retirement benefits.
  • What information the SSA staff is delivering to allow people to make educated claiming decisions.

For the study, the GAO observed 30 in-person claims applications in seven different field offices, reviewed the online claiming user experience and studied existing research on how best to maximize Social Security benefits.[1]

Observations of the in-person meetings resulted in perhaps the most concerning part of the report.

According to the GAO, “Claimants were not consistently provided key information that people may need to make well-informed decisions.” Specifically:

  • There were 26 claims interviews in which the claimant could have received higher monthly benefits by waiting until a later age, but in eight of the meetings, the claims specialist did not discuss the advantages and disadvantages of delaying claiming.
  • The retirement earnings test is a formula that determines how much Social Security benefits will be reduced for a person if he or she starts claiming benefits before full retirement age and continues to work. Of the 18 claimants for whom the retirement earnings test could potentially apply, only seven were given complete information about how the test worked.[2]

Social Security Guide Six Essentials to know

The online claims application system scored only slightly better.

According to the report, “Online applicants have more access to key information on the screen or through tabs and pop-up boxes as they complete an application. However, similar to in-person interviews, the online application process does not inform claimants that benefits are based on the highest 35 years of earnings or that life expectancy is an important consideration in deciding when to claim.”[2]

If such findings concern you, it’s for good reason – Social Security is a significant source of income for those aged 65 and older and when you claim Social Security is one of the most important decisions you can make. In fact, for the 64% of households led by someone aged 65 or older that have a retirement income of $40,000 or less per year, Social Security comprises an average of 86% of overall income.[3] Social Security is also extremely complicated. Many people mistakenly believe that there’s only one way to claim Social Security, but the fact is there are multiple claiming strategies and the timing of when you claim Social Security can directly affect how much money you have to live on in retirement. In light of the GAO study, it’s not surprising that the critically important task of finding and implementing the right claiming strategy may seem overwhelming.

This is precisely why working with an advisor can be helpful. When you sit down with a financial professional who follows the fiduciary standard (which means they’re legally obligated to put your interests before anything else), he or she can help you understand your entire retirement picture and how Social Security fits into it. True, the SSA staff may not necessarily always give the best or most complete advice, but you have options – by taking control of your retirement strategy and working with an advisor, you can help improve the chances that you’ll develop a sound plan that can help you reach your goals.

[1] Investment News, GAO study documents mistakes by Social Security Administration staff, September 2016
[2] United States Government Accountability Office, SOCIAL SECURITY: Improvements to Claims Process Could Help People Make Better Informed Decisions about Retirement Benefits, September 2016
[3] The Motley Fool, The Average American Retiree’s Dependence on Social Security and Pensions, in One Chart, June 2016
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