Social Security is a complex program, and it can be hard to get the answers you need without help. Yet you have to be careful about whom you turn to for guidance, as mistaken information can have permanent and irrevocable consequences that lead you to receive less in Social Security benefits than you deserve.
It's only natural for people with questions about Social Security to turn to the government agency that actually operates the program. Even though many retirees turn to the Social Security Administration's own field offices and call centers to get the help they need, many don't realize that the agents they talk to aren't allowed to give you advice on the best strategies to maximize your benefits -- and if they do anyway, the information they give isn't always right.
What the SSA can't do
The sheer volume of people seeking information from the Social Security Administration is overwhelming. In 2013, the SSA helped more than 43 million visitors to its field offices, handled 53 million transactions on its toll-free telephone number, and processed more than 46 million transactions online. Inquiries range from simple issues like making sure payments are delivered correctly to more involved requests from people seeking guidance on making the most of Social Security. The agency handled about 5 million claims for retirement, survivors, and Medicare benefits, as well as nearly 3 million initial disability claims.
Yet most of the performance measures that the SSA uses focus on resolving issues in a timely manner. Some accuracy-related measures exist, including overpayment and underpayment rates on certain types of claims. But what many people don't understand is that the SSA isn't designed to give financial advice, but rather to help people navigate the claiming process and deal with procedural problems along the way. As a result, the SSA's annual performance plan doesn't include data on call center error rates or similar quality-control metrics.
Dealing with the high and sometimes misguided expectations of the public is a challenge that other government agencies face as well. For instance, the IRS often has to deal with situations in which call center representatives talk to taxpayers and provide information that turns out to be false -- and taxpayers, surprisingly, often lose disputes even when they were relying on the information they received directly from those IRS representatives. Despite the prevalence of tools to help people with their taxes, you remain solely responsible for ensuring that what you put on your tax returns is accurate and complies with the tax law.
Unfortunately, when it comes to Social Security, misleading or erroneous information can be devastating to your finances. If information provided by an SSA representative leads you to take early benefits when you'd be better off waiting, then it can cost you thousands of dollars in extra benefit payments that you would have earned in the future. Conversely, if erroneous advice leads you to wait when you would have been better off claiming early, you can miss out on months or even years of benefits that could have helped your financial situation immediately.
So where can you get advice?
For those who need special assistance they can rely on, a host of new financial-planning companies have emerged to serve the growing group of first-time Social Security recipients. Specialty advisors like Social Security Solutions and Premier Social Security Consulting have built their brands specifically around helping people with Social Security decisions, filling the gap where SSA representatives can't provide the case-specific advice people want.
In addition, many certified financial planners and other financial-planning professionals have individualized experience in dealing with Social Security and can provide services on a fee-only basis. Certain organizations award credentials for planners who receive education specifically to help retirees consider their Social Security options, such as the National Social Security Association and its National Social Security Advisor designation.
It's important to get objective information you can use to assess your best Social Security options, and the Social Security Administration is still a vital resource for that information. But when it comes to analyzing the data and making a final decision, don't rely on the SSA to guide you. Make sure you're comfortable with your own decision -- or get the professional help you need to be confident about your choice.