On Retirement

Social Security training course covers program nuts and bolts

Course covers finer points of Windfall Elimination Provision calculations, but needs more emphasis on claiming strategies

Apr 8, 2014 @ 11:53 am

By Mary Beth Franklin

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a promising new Social Security training program for financial advisers and vowed to report back with my thoughts after taking a one-day online course.

I was impressed with the scope of material covered during the National Social Security Advisors' eight-hour training session, and found the more than 120 downloadable slides clear and concise.

Premier Social Security Consulting co-founders Jim Blair and Marc Kiner, who run the NSSA training program, did a good job of explaining the eligibility rules for various types of beneficiaries including retirees, current and ex-spouses, families, and survivors. And they gave a thorough review of how benefits can be reduced through annual earnings.

But I felt much of the time was devoted to how the Social Security Administration applies the rules rather than how financial advisers can incorporate the rules into their clients' retirement income plan.

For example, Mr. Blair, a 35-year veteran of the Social Security Administration, and Mr. Kinder, a retired accountant, spent a lot of time explaining how Social Security benefits are calculated based on the top 35 years of indexed earnings, subject to a series of “bend points” that result in an individual's benefit amount.

While the information is useful, particularly in understanding the finer points of how that formula is altered when calculating the Windfall Elimination Provision reductions for public employees, I felt that not enough time was allotted to working through various case studies to determine which claiming strategy would be most appropriate in each case. And it was not for lack of material. Numerous case studies were available in the helpful course materials. We just didn't have enough time to review many of them during the class.

I discussed my assessment with Mr. Kiner afterward, and he agreed there would be more emphasis on planning strategies going forward.

“Our goal is not to make you an expert on Social Security, but to make you competent,” Mr. Kiner said at the outset of the training session. But he promised plenty of follow-up help to participants through regular webcasts, calculators, planning tools and answers to advisers' tough client questions.

Mr. Blair laid out a strong argument for why it is worth an adviser's time to become familiar with the rules of this critical retirement income program, noting that more than 90% of recipients do not take steps to maximize their benefits.

“Social Security is pushing away from face-to-face services,” the former SSA employee said. “Do not expect assistance; Social Security representatives are now basically just order takers. Experience has walked out the door.”

Webcast participants had plenty of opportunities to type their questions into the dialogue box and the instructors diligently addressed each one. Although the online format was sufficient for exchanging information, it fell short of an in-person discussion.

The quizzes at the end of each chapter were helpful and good preparation for the final review. At the end of the course, participants were encouraged to log on to a secure site to take a final exam as a prerequisite to receive the organization's certification. (I aced the test!)

The online course was convenient, but I probably would have preferred an in-person experience if one were available (NSSA does hold in-person classes, but in select cities on specific dates).

If you want to earn continuing education credits, you need to take an in-person class. If CE credits are not a priority for you, the online training session is fine. There's also a difference in price: in-person costs $795, versus $595 online. You can find details at the organization's website.

Overall, I would recommend this training session to any adviser who wants to become more proficient in Social Security rules and strategies. As for the NSSA certification, I'm not sure it means much, as Mr. Kiner and Mr. Blair created it when they launched their training program last year. Think of it as a merit badge. The real value is the knowledge you absorb in the process.

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