In 1999, the Social Security Administration began mailing paper copies of Social Security statements to most American workers that summarized their personalized retirement and disability benefits. While these statements were a valuable source of information for workers to understand their future benefits, budget cuts in 2011 ultimately precluded the Administration from continuing to mail paper statements to all workers. However, the Social Security Administration did make online statements available for workers who went through a simple process to establish an account. Whatever the means of access, though, the annual Social Security statement remains the most straightforward way to both know what Social Security benefits are anticipated to be in the future (at least on the worker’s current earnings trajectory), and to spot discrepancies that could be corrected to increase future benefits as well!
Given the likelihood that the Social Security Administration will continue its current practice of not mailing statements to most workers for the foreseeable future, the primary way financial advisors can help clients access their annual Social Security statements is online via a “my Social Security” account.
Once clients establish their my Social Security account and access their Social Security statements, advisors can review these statements with their clients and use them to verify the client’s reported work history, review current estimates of anticipated Social Security benefits, and explore how the benefits align to the client’s retirement income needs. (Though it is important to note that while advisors can help guide clients through the process of creating a my Social Security account (if their clients don’t have one already), they cannot create such an account for their clients, even with the client’s consent!).
Page 1 of the Social Security statement indicates that Social Security benefits are meant to be a supplementary source of income in retirement. This can be an opportune time to discuss a client’s overall sources of income, reviewing anticipated income to be provided by Social Security benefits, current retirement savings, other retirement income sources like a pension, and the potential need for guaranteed income products such as annuities.
Page 2 of the Social Security statement includes a summary of the worker’s estimated retirement, disability, family survivors, and Medicare benefits. Notably, these benefits do not adjust for inflation (i.e., they are reported in current dollars, not future dollars with projected inflation adjustments). Retirement benefit projections also generally assume that the income a worker earned last year will be how much they will continue to earn, in inflation-adjusting dollars, each year until they reach their retirement age. If there are no reported earnings from the prior year, but there are earnings from the prior-prior year, the earnings from the prior-prior year will be assumed through retirement age. Though if a worker has no earnings from either the prior year or the prior-prior year, the Social Security Administration will assume that there will be no future earnings when projecting future benefits.
Page 3 of an individual’s Social Security statement details the earnings that the Administration has on file for each year since an individual began working. Advisors should encourage clients, especially those who are long-term self-employed individuals, to carefully review the earnings history on their statements. If an error or omission is identified, the mistake should be corrected as soon as possible by providing evidence (e.g., old Form W-2s or pay stubs, and/or tax) of the under-reported income to the Social Security Administration.
Ultimately, the key point is that a client’s Social Security statement can provide an advisor with valuable information, help clients to better understand their future potential Social Security Retirement Benefits (or fix their projected benefits if historical earnings are missing!), and serve as a launching point for deeper conversations with the client to explore how they can meet their financial planning goals!