Social Security 1: Planning Is Crucial

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Social Security benefits can represent a big stack of cash. A typical monthly benefit of $2,200 has a present value well over $500,000. Consider all your Social Security options carefully to avoid making a costly mistake.

Like all government law, Social Security is not a simple piece of legislation. Since the Social Security Act became law in 1935, hundreds of amendments have added to the complexity. To make the best decision, you must consider health, income before retirement, income during retirement and taxes.

Retirees cannot rely on commonly held beliefs. Don’t assume that simplistic rules such as “Always file for early benefits” or “You need to stop working to receive benefits” are correct. There are specific cases that break every rule of thumb. And these one-size-fits-all answers leave many retirees failing to maximize the benefits they have earned.

At least four methods are used when electing how to take Social Security. And if you are married, the two of you can mix and match these in more than 16 different ways. Each one results in a different cash flow. By using the cash flows and the time value of money, you can determine which method will result in the highest net present value and offer you the best maximum value.

These methods differ significantly. They depend on your historical earnings, marital or divorce status, continued work in retirement, longevity and rates of return. The choice may be worth $250,000 of income or more. Filing options include “early filing,” “standard filing,” “delayed filing,” “file and suspend,” and many combinations of these options for married couples. It is certainly worth careful study and analysis of each one. Yet a majority of Americans make their choice impulsively and emotionally.

The decision is even more critical for women. For 42% of single women older than 62, Social Security is their sole source of income. Women on average outlive men. Thus planning for retirement is much easier for men, who tend to have more assets and die young. Widows are twice as likely to live under the poverty line as men who have lost their wives. And the poverty rate for elderly single women is 23% compared with just 5% for retired couples.

Couples must take their joint longevity into account before either one files for benefits. The person with the longer life expectancy will inherit either a wise or a foolish decision that will last a lifetime. Given that a husband’s benefits are often higher and the wife’s life expectancy longer, each case needs to be analyzed carefully.

Unfortunately, many people file after considering only one or two options in isolation. The Social Security Administration’s new online filing system enables quick decision making. People can easily submit their request without any professional advice or planning.

Before filing, then, you obviously should be informed about all the options. To begin, you need to know your personal Social Security earnings and the projected benefits for both you and your spouse. You can request an estimate at www.ssa.gov/estimator and then print the results. Or call the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213. You can also get a copy of “Retirement Benefits” (Publication No. 05-10035) online.

Social Security planning is crucial for everyone. People with significant assets should carefully consider both the lifetime benefits and tax consequences of Social Security in light of their overall portfolio strategy. For the less well off, Social Security benefits will dictate their retirement lifestyle. Proper planning could well determine what they can afford to eat.

To help you understand your options before locking in the wrong choice, attend the nonprofit NAPFA Consumer Education Foundation seminar, “Everything You Need to Consider Before Filing for Social Security,” on March 11. This free presentation will be held at the Northside Library meeting room in the Albemarle Square Shopping Center from 7 to 8:30 pm. Financial advisors Matt Illian and Frank McCraw are leading the seminar. For more information, visit www.napfafoundation.org/NAPFAfoundation_Charlottesville.htm . Or e-mail charlottesville@napfafoundation.org .

Photo by Gary Bendig on Unsplash

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David John Marotta is the Founder and President of Marotta Wealth Management. He played for the State Department chess team at age 11, graduated from Stanford, taught Computer and Information Science, and still loves math and strategy games. Favorite number: e (2.7182818...)

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Matthew Illian was a Wealth Manager at Marotta Wealth Management from 2007 to 2016. He specialized in small business consulting, college planning, and retirement plans.