Deciding when to retire is very personal and depends on a number of factors, including a clearly defined vision for how and where time and financial resources will be spent, health and health-care insurance options, family longevity, and penalty-free or mandated withdrawals from retirement accounts. Another key piece in this puzzle is access to Social Security benefits.
It's critical that financial advisers educate clients with the facts early — before their decision is formed by less informed sources. Even for affluent clients, lifetime Social Security benefits can be a significant percentage of their retirement wealth if viewed as a lump sum.
According to an analysis by the Urban Institute, a couple with combined annual earnings of $133,400 who turn 65 in 2025 will receive $821,000 in Social Security benefits in their lifetime.
In my discussions with both advisers and individuals, I've witnessed that the Social Security claiming decision can be overwhelming. Present bias — the overvaluing of short-term gains rather than long-term rewards — is powerful and is not helped by the fact that most Americans significantly underestimate how long they might live.
The result? Confusion about when and why to claim Social Security benefits.
Here are three key areas advisers should focus on when helping their clients navigate Social Security.
1. Understand Social Security timing trade-offs
Surprisingly, few Americans understand the benefits and trade-offs related to claiming Social Security at various ages. The Social Security program is structured to pay higher benefits to those who delay claiming — in other words, beneficiaries have a choice of smaller checks earlier or bigger checks later.
Financial advisers play a pivotal role in helping clients understand that when they claim Social Security will have a permanent impact on the benefit they receive. Claiming before full retirement age can significantly reduce benefits, while delaying increases it.
For example, a client who is 65 or older with a full retirement age of 66 can receive 32% more in a benefit check if they delay until age 70 instead of claiming next year.
Advisers should work with their clients to run different scenarios showing how each claiming age and benefit will fit into their overall plan, and help them make a decision that best suits their personal circumstances.
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2. Maximize Social Security benefits
To combat present bias and life expectancy naysayers, advisers should help every client understand his or her "Social Security break-even age" — how long they need to live to make waiting to collect a bigger benefit actually give them more in total value than claiming smaller benefits earlier.
An important follow-on is to highlight the odds that he or she may reach that age or beyond. In the case of a married couple with a wide earnings difference, the primary earner also needs to understand the odds that just one spouse may live to those ages, because his or her claiming decision will be what the survivor will receive when one spouse passes away.
The chart below illustrates this for a median earner — but the results are the same for all individuals.
3. Consider all unique personal circumstances
Advisers should encourage clients to consider all personal circumstances that can dictate the most appropriate Social Security decision. For example, for individuals whose health is poor or who have chronic conditions that are very likely to shorten life expectancy, it may be a higher priority to receive benefits sooner than delay and not achieve the relevant break-even age.
Likewise, depending on their financial situation, some retirees may not be eager to tap into their savings to pay for living expenses and may elect to take Social Security early to protect their assets.
If delaying claiming and using their portfolio would cause them to change their investment strategy in an overly negative way (i.e., move more heavily into cash or selling out of equities all together), this may be prudent decision as long as they understand the trade-offs they are making. If, however, it is because they think they can "out-invest" Social Security, advisers should explain to them that this is virtually impossible to do over normal life expectancies and given the market outlook for at least the next 10 to 15 years.
Advisers should also warn their clients against taking Social Security benefits early out of fear that the program will run out of money. While it's true that the trust fund is projected to run out by 2035, it's highly likely that Congress will act to shore up the system before then, and any major changes to claiming ages or benefit amounts are most likely to affect much younger Americans who will have more time to adjust for the changes.
Social Security is an important component of retirement income for everyone who's eligible to claim a benefit, regardless of the wealth level of the individual.
Financial advisers play a critical role in assessing the unique personal circumstances of their client to successfully guide them to make the right, informed decision about which Social Security claiming age works best for their unique retirement income plan.
Katherine Roy is chief retirement strategist at J.P. Morgan Asset Management.