Social Security is one of the most important factors to consider when preparing and planning for your financial future during retirement. But the available information on how best to go about preparing oftentimes is contradictory or flat out wrong.
Even the Social Security Administration itself gets things wrong and can lead you down a bad path, experts say.
“Half of the answers Social Security is giving people are wrong or misleading,” said Laurence Kotlikoff, professor of economics at Boston University.
A recent report from the agency’s Office of the Inspector General found that bad Social Security advice cost claimants $131 million.
In response to a request for comment, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration said their website is the most comprehensive source for information on the benefit. He added that some 40 million Americans have made an account with them.
Where to turn for guidance
AARP: Retiree and senior interest group AARP recently launched a Social Security Resource Center, where you can find information about when you should collect your benefits. You’ll also find all kind of answers to tax and work-related questions.
Social Security Works: The advocacy organization Social Security Works answers a list of frequently asked questions, such as, “Is Social Security going bankrupt?” and “How much will I need to retire?”
Center for Retirement Research at Boston College: The center has a Social Security Claiming Guide, which “sorts through all the options, spells out how much you can get and answers frequently asked questions.” It costs $2.75.
Books: There are also a number of books that explain the program and its benefits, including “Social Security Made Simple” by Mike Piper, author of the Oblivious Investor blog, and “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security” by Kotlikoff.
Calculators can help you figure out when you should claim.
Piper’s calculator, Open Social Security, is free but doesn’t account for child benefits. (When you file for the checks, some people in your family might also qualify for benefits.)
Kotlikoff’s software company has its own calculator, called Maximize My Social Security, which costs $40 a year. The tool will tell you which claiming strategy will result in the highest lifetime benefits. Kotlikoff estimates that up to 70 percent of people should wait until 70 to file, although less than 5 percent of people do.
“You want answers from economists,” he said.
Social Security Administration: The SSA itself remains the best place to receive information about Social Security, said Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works.
“In addition to having a nationwide system of local offices where people can make appointments and a [toll-free] number with trained workers, SSA also has online calculators and a lot of relatively easy to understand fact sheets explaining the various rules and options,” Altman said.
Once you’ve done your own research and settled on a claiming strategy, then consult with the Social Security Administration, said Ed Slott, an expert on retirement saving.
“Many of the options you choose may be irrevocable,” he said. “You basically have one chance to get it right.”