Published on: 04/25/2019
Five Pointers to Consider when Filing for Social Security Benefits
Updated: December 2021
I just participated in a recent webinar presented by Laurence Kotlikoff, an economics profession at Boston University, in which he offered several pointers to the audience on Tips to consider when filing for Social Security.
At Avidian Wealth, we have been talking for years about how best to maximize your Social Security Benefits – see:
- Social Security – Retirement Benefit Basics
- Social Security – What you Should do At Age 62?
- Social Security – Myths and Facts
- Social Security – Four Things Women Need to Know
- Retirement – Six Steps to Consider Before Tapping Your Retirement Savings Plan
- A recent interview on the Avidian Money Hour with Andrew Hardwick
As financial planners, our advisors at Avidian Wealth have a broad understanding of how to advise our clients on maximizing their Social Security benefits – and the answer varies depending on each of our clients own personal circumstances.
Per Mr. Kotlikoff, this had become even more difficult due to recent changes to the file-and-suspend benefit rules of Social Security, which take effect this year and restrict that benefit to a limited number of couples. (The spouse who files and suspends must be 66 years old as of May 1, 2016, and submit his or her request to file and suspend by April 29. The other spouse, who will receive that spouse’s benefit, must be 62 years old as of Jan. 1 of this year.) It’s also because Social Security is complicated, and even the workers at the Social Security Administration may not fully understand it.
With that in Mind, Mr. Kotlikoff has these five pointers to consider before you file for your Social Security Benefits:
- Social Security Workers Can Get it Wrong (although most are well intentioned):
Therefore, you need to know the rules yourself. “People in Social Security offices don’t seem to understand the new law,” said Kotlikoff, who’s also author of “Get What’s Yours — the Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security Benefits.” He then recounted stories of several retirees who were given erroneous information by their Social Security office. We have seen the same issues with our clients here at Avidian Wealth. So before you apply for benefits have your game plan on how best to maximize your Social Security given your needs and situation:
- Age (of you and your spouse if married),
- Tax and Work/Employment situation,
- Longevity (how long do you think you will live), and
- Cash Flow Needs.
At Avidian, we have software to help you maximize your benefits and there are also online tools at www.ssa.gov.
- Retirees Should Tell Social Security What They Want to Do – Don’t Just Ask
As discussed above, Retirees need to have the right information about their benefits — which we can provide at Avidian Wealth — and then tell Social Security what they want to do, preferably in writing. They should not ask Social Security workers questions about their benefits and expect to get the right answer, says Kotlikoff.
Mr. Kotlikoff recommends that retirees specify in writing in the remarks section of their application what they want to do, such as claim spousal benefits, and be definitive and clear. “The application form can be misleading,” said Kotlikoff. It says on top that you’re filing for all available benefits even when you’re not always doing that. You can’t undo that statement. The only place to specify … [what you want to do] is in the remarks section.
If someone wants a spousal benefit and the spouse has already applied to file and suspend and won’t take benefits sooner than his or her 70th birthday, “that has to be in writing … definitive and clear,” said Kotlikoff.
- File Social Security Applications Online Rather Than by Phone or in Person
For most of my career, I have recommended that clients should schedule an appointment in their local Social Security Office – I have had few problems with that. Perhaps that is because my clients have a plan.
However, Mr. Kotlikoff believes that it may be safer to file for retirement benefits and spousal benefits online. In that case, he believes that retirees can state exactly what they want to do, and specify in the remarks section of the application form. “You can’t write what you want by phone,” said Kotlikoff. Filing online can also avoid the problem of a worker at a Social Security office writing down the wrong information. Widow and child benefits, however, cannot be applied for online, said Kotlikoff.
- Specify When You Want to Take Social Security Benefits
If you are beginning your Social Security benefits at Full Retirement Age, for those currently filing, it would be age 66, you will need to specify the exact date they want to begin taking benefits in the remarks section of their social Security application. Otherwise, Social Security will provide six months’ worth of retroactive benefits in a lump sum, which will have the effect of slightly reducing future monthly Social Security payments.
- Keep Track of Ex-Spouses if You’re Collecting Their Spousal Benefits
During the webinar, Mr. Kotlikoff recounted the example of an ex-wife who’s 63 and made the grandfather cutoff to collect under file and suspend. She can file for full spousal benefits of an ex-spouse when she reaches full retirement age at 66, then collect those for four years until the larger retirement benefit kicks in at age 70. At that point, if the ex has passed away she can take the larger of two benefits – the divorced widow or the divorced spouse. Per Mr. Kotlikoff, you should keep track whether your ex-spouse is still alive.
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