Category Archives: Tips for Financial Planners

Social Security Income Advisors: A New Rip-Off?

I recently came across the Social Security Income Advisors (SSIA) website. This site is offering you an incredible bargain: from it you can buy a Social Security optimization report for about 5 times what a comparable or better report would cost you elsewhere!

The SSIA site is asking $199.99 for a report produced by a wholesaler. Some financial planners give this same report away for free, as a loss-leader. We offer a more comprehensive report for a mere $39.99.

I find it hard to describe the offering from Social Security Income Advisors as anything other than a “rip-off.”

Do Social Security Benefits Really Increase by 8 Percent a Year?

When talking with clients, I often hear the comment that their Social Security benefits will increase by 8 percent if they delay claiming a year. This statement is true only in one instance: claiming at 67 rather than at 66 increases one’s retirement benefits by exactly 8 percent. (Note: the following applies to those with a full retirement age of 66.)

The actual year-over-year percentage gain for ages 62 to 70 are shown in the following table. Those gains range from 6.5 percent (claiming at 70 rather than 69) to 8.4% percent (claiming at 64 rather than 63).

The confusion arises from the fact that after one reaches age 66, their retirement benefits will increase by 8 percent of their age-66 benefit for each year one delays. But, this is a very different thing from an annual percentage increase.

Claiming Age Gain from Preceding Year
62 na 
63 6.7%
64 8.4%
65 7.6%
66 7.2%
67 8.0%
68 7.4%
69 6.9%
70 6.5%

Social Security’s Windfall Elimination Provision: How to Quickly Calculate Your Penalty

For those of you affected by the Windfall Elimination Provision, finding out how much your Social Security benefits will be reduced is no easy matter. You can ask your local SSA office for help, but it may take you weeks to get an appointment to see a representative. Or, you can use the WEP calculator on the SSA website. However, that calculator requires you to enter your entire Social Security earnings history. Tracking down and entering that information may involve significant time costs for some.

In this post, I offer a quick way to calculate the WEP penalty for those with 20 or fewer years of substantial Social Security earnings. Most people with a government (non-SS) pension probably fall into this category.

Note that the following discussion applies to those turning 62 in 2013. If your year of birth is before or after 1951, the numbers shown below represent for you a close approximation for your WEP penalty.

To determine your WEP penalty, you need to compare three numbers:

  1. 55.6% of your full retirement age benefit (from your SS Statement); this is your tentative WEP penalty;
  2. $396; this is one of two limits on your WEP penalty (it changes with each COLA adjustment); and
  3. 50% of your non-SS government pension; this is the second limit on your WEP penalty.

Once you have these three numbers, pick the smallest one. That is your WEP penalty: that is, the reduction in your full retirement age (FRA) benefit due to your non-SS government pension.

Here are a couple of  examples. Suppose your FRA monthly benefit is $800 and your non-SS pension is $500. The three numbers for finding your WEP penalty are:

  1. $444 (= 55.6% of $800)
  2. $396
  3. $250 (=50% of $500)

So, your WEP penalty is $250, which reduces your FRA SS benefit from $800 to $550.

Next, in the above example let’s change the non–SS pension to $1,000, keeping the FRA benefit at $800. The three critical numbers are:

  1. $444
  2. $396
  3. $500 (=50% of $1,000)

In this example, your WEP penalty is $396, which reduces your FRA benefit from $800 to $404.

This WEP-adjusted FRA benefit is the value you would use if you want to calculate either an early claiming penalty or delayed retirement benefits.

It is also the value you would use if you are requesting a custom report from us to help you get the most out of Social Security.

Further Detail

The following table provides information on the WEP penalty for all of the relevant substantial-earnings years (for those turning 62 in 2013). The row for “20-or-fewer” years of substantial earnings shows the penalty values used in the above examples. (Note that “Limit #1″ changes whenever SS benefits get a COLA adjustment.)

Years with Substantial Earnings WEP Penalty Rate WEP  Penalty Limit #1 WEP Penalty Limit #2
20 or fewer 55.6% $396 50% of pension
21 50.0% $356 50% of pension
22 44.4% $316 50% of pension
23 38.9% $277 50% of pension
24 33.3% $237 50% of pension
25 27.8% $198 50% of pension
26 22.2% $158 50% of pension
27 16.7% $119 50% of pension
28 11.1% $79 50% of pension
29 5.6% $40 50% of pension
30 0.0% $0 50% of pension

Here is an additional example of how to use the above table. Assume you have 25 years of substantial earnings. Further, suppose your FRA monthly benefit is $800 and your non-SS pension is $500. The three numbers for finding your WEP penalty are:

  1. $222 (= 27.8% of $800)
  2. $198
  3. $250 (=50% of $500)

So, your WEP penalty is $198, which reduces your FRA SS benefit from $800 to $602.

This WEP-adjusted FRA benefit of $602 is the value you would use if you want to calculate either an early claiming penalty or delayed retirement benefits.

And, again, it is also the value you would use if you are requesting a custom report from us to help you get the most out of Social Security.

 

 

 

Social Security Benefits and the Time Value of Money

Clients sometimes ask us why we conduct our optimization analyses with discounted dollars (future dollars converted to present-value equivalents), rather than with the actual cash flow of Social Security benefits. After all, they say: “actual cash flows are easy to understand, but ‘discounted’ future dollars is a confusing concept.”

Here is why we discount future dollars: No one believes that $100 to be received 30 years in the future is worth as much as $100 to be received immediately. Our approach is consistent with this universal belief and the behavior that stems from it.

We translate future dollars into present value equivalents, using a 3% “real” discount rate (that is, over and above any inflation). This rate implies, for example, that $100 to be received one-year from now is worth about $97 today. And, a $100 to be received 25 years from now is worth about $49 today. For more discussion on the mechanics of discounting, go here.

Some Social Security optimization programs do not discount; that is, they base their analyses on undiscounted cash flows, treating $100 30-years from now the same as $100 today. So, their approach is totally inconsistent with how actual people think and behave. And, the advice coming from these software packages misleads people into thinking that they should claim benefits later than makes sense from a financial perspective. Of course, many people want to claim sooner rather than later, so giving them misleading advice to claim later than makes sense just causes them to ignore the advice that they just paid for.

Here is an illustration of how the undiscounted cash flow approach seriously tilts the advice toward late claiming. Assume that Andy is single. He is now 60 years old. His SS benefit amount at full retirement is $2,000. His life expectancy is approximately 79.

The naive cash flow analysis suggests that Andy should claim benefits at age 67. In sharp contrast, when we convert future values into present value equivalents with a 3% discount rate, we find that the optimal claiming age for Andy is 62! Discounting really matters, as this example illustrates.

Here is another illustration, for a married couple this time. Let’s use Fred and Ann for our example. Fred was born in 1950, Ann in 1953. His full retirement age benefit is $2,500; hers is $1,500. They both have normal expected life spans: 82 for him and 86 for her.

No Discounting

Using the naive cash flow analysis (no discounting*), the optimal strategy that maximizes that cash flow is:

  1. Fred files and suspends at 66 in 2016
  2. Ann claims spousal at 66 in 2018 ($1,250/mo)
  3. Fred claims retirement at 70 in 2020  ($3,300/mo)
  4. Ann drops spousal and claims retirement at 70 in 2022 ($1,980/mo)
  5. Ann switches to survivor’s benefits in 2033 ($3,300/mo).

By the time Ann dies at 86, this strategy will have yielded $1,090,000 in Social Security benefits. (If this time stream of benefits is discounted at 3%, we get a measure of Social Security Wealth equal to $677,000.)

Our Approach: Discounting at 3 Percent

When we discount future dollars using a 3% discount rate**, we would recommend the following for this couple:

  1. Ann claims retirement at 62 in 2014 ($1,125/mo)
  2. Fred claims spousal at 66 in 2016 ($750/mo)
  3. Fred claims retirement at 70 in 2020 ($3,300/mo)
  4. Ann claims survivor’s benefits in 2033 ($3,300/mo)

By the time Ann dies, this strategy will have yielded $1,071,000 in Social Security benefits, measured on a cash-flow basis. (Converted to a discounted present value of Social Security Wealth, these recommendations produce $685,000–more than the no-discounting recommendations previously discussed).

Notice that by discounting at 3%, we place more emphasis on near-term benefits, which yields recommendations for the couple to start claiming four years earlier than does the naive cash flow analysis.

The naive cash flow recommendations offer a $19,000 advantage over the 24-year time period considered here. But, that approach takes 16 years to gain an advantage over our recommendations, based on discounting at 3%. This point is illustrated in the following graph.

The horizontal axis shows the number of years used in the analysis, from 1 to 25. The vertical axis shows the cumulative losses or gains from following the naive cash flow recommendations versus our recommendations.

no discounting versus 3 percent

By the time the naive cash flow recommendations kick-in (year 5 in the graph), they are already $89,000 behind our recommended approach. And they don’t gain the advantage for another 11 years (year 17 in the graph). And then the advantage is relatively modest ($19,000 received when Ann is about 78 and Fred is about 81, very near the end of his expected life span).

So, by emphasizing near-term benefits over distant benefits, our approach leads to optimal recommendations that typically bring Social Security claimants money years earlier than the naive cash flow recommendations. Moreover, our approach is consistent with how people actually think and behave.

_____________________

*In this example, discounting future benefits at any rate below 1.75% leads to the same set of recommendations: claim as late as possible.

**In this example, any discount rate between 2% and 5.5% produces the same recommendations, so there is nothing critical about our 3% discount rate.

Social Security Benefits and the Time Value of Money: An Example

Occasionally, someone asks me for an explanation of the mechanics of discounting future values to get present value equivalents. In this post, I provide an illustration of those mechanics. You can find some additional discussion on our main website.

Suppose that Mary, a single female, is turning 62. She will receive $25,000 a year if she claims at that age. Over a normal life span, up to age 86, she will receive a total of $625,000 (ignoring any COLAs).

A serious problem with this total amount is that it assumes that the $25,000 received 25 years from now has the same value to Mary today as the $25,000 she will get over the next year. Clearly, these two amounts don’t have the same present value: $25,000 25 years from now is worth a lot less than $25,000 received over the next 12 months.

The conventional method for translating future values into present value equivalents is to discount those future values by a discount rate (or discount factor). For our calculations, we use a 3% real discount rate (that is, 3% over and above any inflation).

So, the present value of $25,000 to be received next year would be calculated as: $25,000/1.03 = $24,272. In other words, at a 3% discount rate, $25,000 received next year is worth $24,272 to you today.

From an investment perspective, discounting is the twin of compounding. If you could invest $24,272 today at 3% (above inflation), you would have $25,000 in one year (= $24,272*1.03).

The calculations for the entire 25 year period used in this example are shown below:

Calculating Present Values

The undiscounted annual benefits ($25,000) are shown in the second column. The appropriate discount rate is shown in the third column. And the discounted amounts are shown in the last column.

Our measure of Social Security Wealth is the sum of the last column: $448,389 in this instance. Compare that amount to the undiscounted amount of $625,000. The discounted amount is about two-thirds of the undiscounted amount. (We have found this two-thirds relationship to be a fairly reliable rule of thumb in many instances.)

One useful way to think about the discounted total amount is as follows: $448,389 invested at 3% above inflation will yield a time stream of annual payments of $25,000, for a inflation-adjusted total of $625,000 by year 25.

Now, you may wonder why we use a 3 percent discount rate. That is an issue for a future post.

T Rowe Price Social Security Benefit Calculator: A Broken Tool

T Rowe Price recently rolled out a new Social Security benefit calculator. Unfortunately, their calculator is not ready for prime time. In fact, in its current state, it is not ready for any time. It gives incomplete and misleading advice that, if followed, could cost some married couples $100,000 or more.

I will illustrate some of the problems with the T. Rowe Price (TRP) Social Security calculator with data for a hypothetical married couple, John and Mary. I assume John and Mary were born in 1952 and 1954, respectively. John’s life expectancy is 83; Mary’s is 95. John’s Social Security benefit at his full retirement age (FRA) is $2000 a month, while Mary’s is $100 a month.

Example #1

For this example, I selected the following as this couple’s goal: “We want to maximize the survivor benefit and also receive income early, if possible.” (The TRP calculator allows a user to select among several goals.)

Here is the set of recommendations from the T. Rowe Price calculator:

  1. Mary claims retirement benefits at 62, receiving approximately $900 per year.
  2. When John turns 66, he files a restricted application for spousal benefits, receiving approximately $600 per year.
  3. When John turns 70, he claims his own retirement benefits, receiving approximately $31,680 per year.

And that’s it.

Do you see a problem here–a really big problem?

The T. Rowe Price Social Security calculator has failed to include a recommendation that Mary should claim a spousal supplement as soon as John turns 70. At that point, she could pick up an extra $10,800 a year in spousal benefits. These spousal benefits would continue until John’s expected death at age 83, implying that the T. Rowe Price Social Security calculator has mislaid about $140,000 in this case!

That’s an amazing–really, inexcusable–oversight.

Example #2

For this second example, I assume that Mary’s retirement benefit at her FRA is $900 per month. Other personal characteristics remain unchanged.

For the couple’s goal, I assume that John plans to retire at age 66 and that Mary plans to retire at 70.

Here is what the TRP calculator recommends:

  1. John should file for his retirement benefits at age 66, receiving approximately $24,000 per year.
  2. Mary should file for her retirement benefits at age 70, receiving approximately $14,256 per year.

Again, that’s it.

And, again, I ask: do you see a really big problem here?

The TRP calculator fails to mention that Mary can claim spousal benefits at age 66, using a restricted application and letting her retirement benefits grow until age 70. These spousal benefits would equal $12,000 a year, or $48,000 between age 66 and 70 Mary.

I have not yet thoroughly investigated the TRP calculator. But, from what I have seen, it is easy to conclude that this calculator is seriously broken.

For an example of a calculator that actually works, go here.

 

 

 

 

Getting the Most Out of Social Security while Meeting your Needs

For many retirees, Social Security benefits make up a large portion of retirement savings. Often, these people can only follow a limited set of strategies to optimize their benefits because they may not have the financial resources to wait as long as the mathematics of their situation would suggest. This is why our custom reports provide more than just the “optimal strategy.” Rather, we show you the optimal strategy, as well as a wide range of alternative strategies, how to implement them, and how they compare in dollar terms to the optimal strategy. In many cases, one can find a strategy that, while not quite the best from a mathematical standpoint, is far superior to the default (claiming immediately) and better meets financial goals in retirement.

Sometimes, situations even change after a Social Security plan has been partially implemented. In the case of a married couple, sometimes steps can be taken to alter the strategy to get larger SS checks sooner than planned, such as by having one spouse claim earlier than expected. However, beneficiaries and advisors should be aware of the repercussions of changing plans, especially when complex strategies are involved.

Recently, a client wrote to ask the following: “I’m over 66 and still working. Can I apply for my full benefits for a few months to temporarily increase my current income for some bills and then go back to the ‘free spousal’ benefit later on?” In this case, as recommended by our report, the client had filed a restricted application for a “free spousal” benefit on his wife’s record while allowing his own retirement benefit to grow. His financial situation changed, and he was hoping to temporarily increase his benefit by switching to his own benefit and then switching back (by suspending his benefit and going back to the spousal benefit) when he had paid his bills. Unfortunately, this option isn’t available.

When a beneficiary files a restricted application, he can end the restriction by filing for his own benefit at any time. Additionally, a beneficiary can suspend his benefit at any time (as long as he is at or above full retirement age). However, for calculating spousal benefits, a suspended benefit is treated differently than one for which an application was never filed. When my client originally claimed his free spousal benefit, he had never filed for his own benefit, so the spousal benefit is not reduced by the amount of his own benefit. However, if he were to file and then suspend later, he is still “entitled” to his own benefit even after suspending. The spousal benefit he was receiving would be lower, at best, or completely eliminated, at worse, depending on the size of his benefit relative to his wife’s.

Fortunately, our client wrote to ask about his proposed plan. Had he implemented it, he would’ve been stuck with his early claim and may have given up thousands of dollars over his lifetime. His strategy makes intuitive sense, but the way the SSA defines entitlement to benefits is one of the many nuances that claimants need to account for. Our software takes these nuances into account, and if you have questions that our software doesn’t answer, we’re always happy to help our customers.

How to Calculate the Social Security Supplemental Spouse Benefit

A client recently asked me: “Should I claim my modest Social Security retirement benefit early, say at 62, and then switch to my larger spousal benefit later on?” This question shows a serious misunderstanding of the relationship between retirement benefits and spousal benefits.

One can never switch from retirement benefits to spousal benefits. If a person is receiving retirement benefits (or they have filed and suspended receipt of those benefits), then the spousal benefit becomes a supplemental benefit, not a substitute benefit.  In other words, when a person is eligible for both retirement and spousal benefits, the Social Security Administration first calculates their retirement benefit, and then adds their spousal supplement. While this distinction may appear trivial, it can nevertheless have significant implications for Social Security claiming decisions, as I will show below.

Just to keep things reasonably simple, I limit the following discussion to those circumstances in which a person claims retirement benefits early and then claims spousal benefits at their full retirement age (FRA).  Note that if a person claims retirement benefits before FRA and they are eligible for spousal benefits at the time of claiming, then the SSA “deems” that both benefits are being claimed. So, the case I discuss here applies only to those who could not claim spousal benefits at the time they claim retirement benefits.  A person cannot claim spousal benefits unless their spouse has claimed his or her own retirement benefits. (This restriction does not apply to ex-spousal benefits, but that is a topic for another time.)

Let’s look at an example to see how this works. Consider a hypothetical couple: Karen and Burt, who are both 62. Karen’s retirement benefit at age 66, her full retirement age (FRA), is $400 a month. Burt’s age 66 (his FRA) benefit is $2,000. Karen’s maximum spousal benefit is $1,000 at 66 (that is half of Burt’s age 66 retirement benefits). Burt plans to file for retirement benefits at 66, at which point Karen will be eligible to claim spousal benefits.

Karen knows that she can claim retirement benefits early at age 62 and get $300/month (75% of the $400 she could get at her FRA). She also believes that at her FRA she can switch to her spousal benefits and get $1,000. She is wrong on this last count. By claiming spousal benefits at her FRA, she can get the full spousal supplement, but that will not bring her up to $1,000.

Here is how the full spousal supplement is determined. It equals 1) a person’s maximum spousal benefit at their FRA ($1,000 for Karen) minus 2) that person’s retirement benefit at FRA ($400 for Karen). By claiming spousal benefits at her FRA, after claiming $300 in retirement benefits at 62, she gets a full spousal supplement of $600 (= $1,000 – $400). This brings her total benefit, at FRA, up to $900, not the $1,000 she was expecting.

Claiming retirement benefits early results in a significant reduction in those benefits. Karen thought she could claim retirement benefits early and then dodge that penalty by “switching” to spousal benefits. But, that is simply not possible, as the above example demonstrates. The early retirement penalty will stick with Karen until she dies (or until she switches to widow’s benefits— a topic for another post).

A final point: just as early claiming of retirement benefits is penalized, so is early claiming of a spousal supplement.  But, just to add to the complexity, the SSA uses different early claiming penalties for the two benefits.

For much more information about benefits available to married couples, go here.