Check out resources to become a Social Security expert

Jan 5, 2014 @ 12:01 am

By Mary Beth Franklin

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InvestmentNews readers often ask me for recommendations on books and other resources to help them get up to speed on Social Security-claiming strategies.

It is a great way to start the new year if one of your resolutions is to become a Social Security expert.

My go-to resource for Social Security information isn't a book at all but the Social Security Administration's website, which is constantly evolving with ever-improving information for consumers and financial advisers. In fact, there is a landing page designed specifically for financial planners (ssa.gov/ financialplanners).

The site provides information on various Social Security programs and Medicare, and is a valuable resource to help clients plan for retirement and deal with life events such as disability or a death in the family.

Advisers would be wise to familiarize themselves with the site's various benefit calculators, online application process and, most importantly, how to set up an online account to access personalized estimated-benefit statements.

Remember, Social Security no longer mails these annual statements. The only way that advisers and their clients can access this vitally important information is by setting up an online account at ssa.gov/myaccount.

ON MY BOOKSHELF

When I need to turn to a reference book, one of my favorites is “Social Security: The Inside Story” by Andy Landis (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011). This book is comprehensive, easy to understand and logically organized.

As a former SSA employee, Mr. Landis offers a true insider's view of how this giant program works. It includes a few history lessons, discusses the strengths and weakness of the program, explains how retirement benefits are calculated and outlines which family members may be eligible for benefits when a worker retires, becomes disabled or dies.

The book also explains the nuts and bolts of filing a claim for benefits, the impact of work on benefits before full retirement age, and how Social Security benefits are taxed based on income. And it includes some basic guidelines for how to maximize benefits, explaining the concepts of filing a restricted claim for spousal benefits only or why one might want to file and suspend at full retirement age.

But for those who are looking for a more in-depth discussion of how to optimize Social Security retirement benefits, pick up a copy of “Social Security Strategies” by William Reichenstein and William Meyer (self-published, 2011). The authors of this thin tome are the founders of the online software programs Social Security Solutions for consumers and Social Security Analyzer for advisers.

Mr. Meyer and Mr. Reichenstein also are frequent contributors to research publications such as the Journal of Financial Planning, where they have written about optimum claiming strategies, how to minimize longevity risk, and the impact of Social Security-claiming strategies on clients' investment portfolios.

Their book includes guidelines for singles, married couples and divorced spouses, and also explains the do-over option of how to reverse a claiming decision within 12 months of receiving benefits.

A new book, “Social Security Essentials,” by Dean Barber and Joe Elsasser (Social Security Timing, 2013) does a good job of explaining how a Social Security-claiming strategy fits into the overall retirement income puzzle. It also challenges the traditional protocol of tapping Social Security benefits early as a way to allow qualified retirement accounts to continue to grow tax-deferred as long as possible.

The book is designed to appeal to consumers and help them choose an adviser who is familiar with the ins and outs of Social Security. But it sometimes slips into industry jargon that only an adviser could love or understand.

And though it includes explanations of various claiming strategies, the authors tend to get buried in broader explanations of the overall program, which makes it difficult to find answers about appropriate strategies for specific situations. However, the end-of-chapter summations and checklists are nice touches.

All three books are available online with prices ranging from about $20 to $25.

CONCISE GUIDES

Those looking for a concise downloadable PDF guide to help wrap theirs heads around optimum Social Security-claiming strategies for clients should check out the “Guide to Social Security” from HealthView Services (hvsfinancial .com). Volume 1 is available for $15 and Volumes 1 and 2 for $25.

Another option is Kiplinger's “Boomer's Guide to Social Security,” available for $29.95 (store.kiplinger.com/ social-security.html).

Despite all the information available about Social Security benefits and claiming strategies, I still feel like there is room for a new, succinct guide for advisers. Inspired by the hundreds of questions that I have received from InvestmentNews readers over the past two years, I am working on the definitive Social Security handbook for advisers.

Stay tuned.

Mary Beth Franklin is a contributing editor for InvestmentNews.

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