How often should financial planners review a client's expected Social Security benefits to help in retirement income planning?
"We do not run annual Social Security projections because changes are minimal," says Stefan Prvanov, president and CEO at Blankinship & Foster, a wealth management firm in San Diego. "However, we will run such projections every few years, and as clients approach key claiming ages."
Prvanov's firm uses several methods of obtaining the relevant numbers. "Our preference is to use an actual copy of the client's most recent Social Security statement," he says. "Alternatively, we'll have the client create an account on the Social Security website and get the statement."
These statements show individuals what benefits they can expect to receive at various ages for starting Social Security, without inflation adjustments. Prvanov's second and third choices, also on ssa.gov, are the Social Security Retirement Estimator, which only the client can use, and other calculators that provide a quick, rough estimate of Social Security benefits.
USING THE DATA
Recently, Prvanov provided married clients with a link to ssa.gov. "The couple created accounts and provided us with the numbers," he says. "The husband's annual Social Security benefit at age 66 would be $25,750, while deferring until age 70 would increase it to $35,000. The wife's spousal benefit at age 66 would be $12,900 a year. Once we had solid numbers, we worked on a strategy."
The plan calls for the husband to file for and suspend benefits at age 66, allowing the wife to start taking spousal benefits at 66. "At 70, the husband will start to receive a higher lifetime income, to help protect against longevity risk, which is a key consideration in their retirement planning," says Prvanov. "The early income for the wife will reduce the cash needs of their investment portfolio, allowing us to put more of it to work. The husband's increased guaranteed lifetime income will allow them to allocate more of their portfolio to long-term growth investments."
Marilyn Bergen, partner at Confluence Wealth Management in Portland, Ore., also includes Social Security scenarios in clients' retirement income plans. "We've done some stand-alone calculations for clients," she says. "Then we've recommended they visit the local Social Security office, which seems to be pretty user-friendly."
Going forward, Bergen's firm is reviewing a software program that can project Social Security benefits. "We'd like to deliver this information to clients in a more systematic way," she says, "with charts and illustrations.
That would help determine the optimal strategy, which is more complex for anyone who is married or who has been married for at least 10 years. At our firm, incorporating Social Security strategies into retirement planning has become a much bigger need than it used to be."