For widows, and widowers, a call-to-arms for financial advisors
by Marcia Mantell, RMA®, NSSA®Ms. Mantell is the founder and president of Mantell Retirement Consulting, Inc., a retirement business development, marketing & communications, and education company supporting the financial services industry, advisors, and their clients. She is author of “What’s the Deal with Retirement Planning for Women?”, the newly published “What’s the Deal with Social Security for Women?” and blogs at BoomerRetirementBriefs.com.
A couple of years ago, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at the Social Security Administration issued a disturbing report. During an audit, they found that 82% of widows and widowers “were eligible for a higher monthly benefit amount had they delayed their retirement application until age 70.”
OIG estimated that Social Security had already underpaid more than 9,000 beneficiaries to the tune of $132 million dollars; and, they will underpay another 1,900 beneficiaries almost $10 million annually, starting the year they reach age 70.
Those dollars not paid out is real money for real retired surviving spouses. What is going on here?
Looking For An OIG Update
Because this information was so egregious, and it’s been more than two years since the OIG uncovered this issue, I went looking for an update. Has Social Security implemented a solution to fix the problem?
Much to my dismay, there was not an update to the “2018 underpayment problem.” Instead, the OIG found a new problem for widows and widowers. In a report issued on June 9, 2020, a new OIG audit revealed that 69% of their sample set of beneficiaries were eligible for higher surviving spouse benefits.
This time, just over 15,000 retirement beneficiaries “were eligible for $193.8 million in widow(er)’s benefits as of September 2019.” The audit further estimated that another 12,600 of the 15,000 could lose an additional $531 million in survivor spouse benefits over their estimated lifetimes.
Needless to say, my jaw dropped.
Why Are Surviving Spouses Missing Out On Such Significant Benefits?
There are many reasons why an individual widow or widower might be receiving less Social Security than they should. Here are four:
- To start, the calculations to figure out survivor benefits are wildly complex and convoluted. The rule book is hundreds of pages long, and the regulations are not at all clear or straightforward. There are cross-references among and between various sections of the regulations, depending on situational considerations.
- Only Social Security Agents can determine widow(er) benefits, but many Agents lack understanding of how three distinct benefit types interrelate: “spousal” benefit, retirement benefits with auxiliary payments, and “surviving spouse” benefits. Each has a completely different set of rules.
- Another issue is the knowledge of the widow(er)s themselves. As retirees, generally speaking, they don’t know how their own Social Security retirement benefit works. When they become widowed and now have access to survivor spouse benefits, they simply have no idea how and why they have other strategies and timing to consider that could deliver higher benefits. And, the order they select among their benefits matters greatly.
- The Social Security Administration (SSA) has significantly scaled back their operations over the last decade, just as Boomers were getting ready to retire in droves. For cost efficiency, the SSA has determined that older Americans, who have no idea how Social Security works, must hop online and figure all this out for themselves. Some are up to the challenge. Many others don’t even have ready access to high-speed internet.
And, just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, when you become a surviving spouse. Claims as a widow(er) cannot be handled online. You must meet with a Social Security Agent, who in many instances, aren’t well-schooled complex survivor situations. In fact, that many Agents don’t offer the best information or the correct benefits for surviving spouses, resulting in lower benefits.
These factors all work together and against widows and widowers when it comes time to collect benefits. The outcome is what the OIG found in their audit: most widow(er)s should be getting higher benefits.
One more area of concern that hits closer to home: most financial advisors have no idea that their widowed clients are getting less in Social Security benefits than they should be.
A Call-To-Arms For Financial Advisors
Despite the fact that many Social Security Agents don’t understand the survivor benefit rules, I don’t want to throw them under the bus. Their job is incredibly hard. They deal with so much more than retirement benefits and eventual survivor spouse benefits. They have to develop proficiency in handling disability claims, family benefits for children, disabled children, parents, ex-spouses, deceased ex-spouses, multiple spouses, and such. In addition, they need to answer Medicare questions. It is a super-tall order and they do a very good job in the operational aspects of the job: turning on your highest benefit available on the day you visit.
The problem is that the highest benefit your client is entitled to today might not be in his or her best interest tomorrow. They may be better off taking a lower payment today, allowing for a higher payment later at Full Retirement Age (FRA) or at age 70.
That’s where financial advisors have an opportunity to rise to the occasion, or as I call it a “call to arms”. It is critical that financial advisors help their married and divorced clients figure out their best overall Social Security survivor strategies. Social Security can’t hire on an additional 1,500,000+ agents. But, with 1,500,000+ professional financial advisors, insurance agents and service support staff across the country, each one can help in this critical mission.
Financial Advisors Are Starting To Plan For Social Security Benefits
Some financial advisors include initial claiming strategies between couples in the planning process, assuming both people will be alive. But few have mastered survivor benefit strategies. Even fewer advisors know that working with current widow(er)s requires a review of any prior Social Security strategy. There are several points in developing retirement income plans that need an advisor to assess benefit options. And, only the financial advisor can see a comprehensive view of the client’s household assets and sources of income. The SSA has no insight into your clients’ plans.
To be fair, survivor claims are not straightforward calculations. The rules are not clear. And, Social Security Agents generally cannot help your clients with strategies. Just filling out the right forms is a big enough job to get right.
Our industry hears over and over again that the Agents give widow(er)s incorrect information, even when the widow(er) has the right information. So real clients need real help from their retirement income advisor. Otherwise, as the OIG points out, a lot of money is needlessly left on the table.
Where to start?
Let’s consider some of the possible situations your client couples could experience. There are many different paths to widowhood, and all require different strategies for survivor benefits. While it is not up to the financial advisor to calculate the official benefits, understanding and planning various strategies in advance will help your clients. The key to ultimately figuring out an ideal strategy depends on at least a dozen factors:
- How old was your client when he/she became a widow(er)?
- How old was the deceased spouse when he/she died?
- Were there minor children at home at the point of death?
- Was the deceased spouse already claiming his/her benefits and when did they start those benefits relative to their FRA (Full Retirement Age)?
- Has the surviving spouse claimed his or her benefits?
- Is the surviving spouse eligible for his/her own retirement benefits, only spousal benefits, or a combination of the two?
- Is there a previous marriage to also be considered in the survivor benefit equation?
- Are there one or more ex-spouses that could be considered in calculating benefits for the surviving spouse?
- Did the widow(er) remarry before age 60? Is he/she still married or did that marriage end? If it ended, how long did it last?
- What other financial resources does the surviving spouse have to work with?
- Is the surviving spouse younger than FRA, but still working? Older than FRA?
- Does the surviving spouse have a public pension they will receive? Starting when?
You can begin to see just how complicated it is to figure out the right claiming strategy for each individual client before they go to the SSA. But, getting it wrong is simply too costly. And, the knowledge, expertise, and other resources financial advisors can bring to the table can make a real difference to any client who becomes widowed.
General Rules For Surviving Spouses
There are several fundamental rules for a client who becomes a widow(er), including:
- A widow(er) receives a survivor benefit if it is higher than the benefit he/she has on their own record or as a spouse.
Only one benefit is allowed at a time – either your own or a survivor benefit.
- Survivor benefits begin as early as age 60 (not 62) and there is a different FRA for survivors.
- Survivor benefits are a separate and distinct “bucket” of benefits from retirement benefits and from spousal benefits. There are unique rules for eligibility.
- A widow(er) can decide which “bucket” to claim first (survivor benefits or retirement benefits) and then later switch to the other bucket.
- Survivor benefits reach their maximum at the survivor-FRA. Delayed Retirement Credits do not apply to survivor benefits.
Every situation is going to be unique. The funeral director generally files a death form with the SSA during funeral planning. The form alerts the SSA of a person’s death, stops payments on the deceased spouse, and assesses if the widow(er) can now receive survivor benefits. It is a complicated series of steps to determine the survivor’s benefit. That’s why applying for survivor benefits needs to be done directly with the SSA and not online.
Talking With An Expert Is Critical
Because your clients can become widow(er)s at any time, before or after reaching age 60, before or after reaching their FRA, before or after claiming their own benefits, and so on, figuring out the claiming strategy that maximizes benefits is no easy process. I connected with James Blair, Social Security Consultant and co-owner of Premier Social Security Consulting, in Cincinnati, to ask him about the complexities of getting claims right when it comes to surviving spouses.
He shared that it is particularly challenging when the deceased began their benefits before their FRA (locking in a reduced payment) and the widow(er) is between 60 and their own FRA.
I specifically wanted to focus on this early 60’s age group, because many clients are putting final touches on their retirement income plans at this age, and should be planning for the likelihood that one of them will become a surviving spouse. It’s a matter of when, not if.
Here is one scenario I discussed with Mr. Blair: Husband Jason is 4 years older than his dependent wife Judy. They were both receiving benefits. He claimed at his FRA, receiving $2,800 per month; she claimed at 62, receiving a reduced spousal benefit of $970. Judy became a widow at 63, three years before reaching her survivor FRA.
Blair explains that when a dependent spouse is widowed before her/his FRA, spousal benefits stop. In this case, Judy will have to make a key financial decision with her Social Security benefit: should she wait to file for her maximum survivor benefit when she reaches her survivor-FRA, or claim permanently reduced survivor benefits now?
In this example, filing for survivor benefits before her FRA reduces the $2,800/month benefit (plus COLA adjustments) to about $2,400 per month. This is a permanent reduction for Judy.
Which path she chooses will greatly depend on the overall resources the couple has for providing retirement income. It might work out best to switch over to survivor benefits right away…or it might work best to wait three years until FRA to maximize her benefit. Clients will rely on the advice of their financial advisor to prepare for these kinds of possibilities. The Social Security agents do not have comprehensive financial information about your client’s situation. They can only implement the decision your client makes. And, it’s often in the heat of the moment.
The Bottom Line
Leaving a serious discussion about Social Security survivor benefits off the planning table does nothing to help your clients. While unpleasant to think about survivor benefits when both members of the couple are alive, it becomes an even more brutal discussion after the first spouse dies. It is not helpful to leave widow(er)s in such a vulnerable position where they have to make significant financial decisions in the first few weeks and months after their spouse has died.
Your “call-to-arms” as a financial advisor is to include serious survivor discussions and planning into your married and divorced clients’ retirement income plans. You will be offering significant and important solutions for their future financial security.
1- Office of the Inspector General, Social Security Administration, Audit Report. Higher Benefits for Dually Entitled Widow(er)s Had They Delayed Applying for Retirement Benefits. February 2018.
2- Office of the Inspector General, Social Security Administration, Audit Report. Retirement Beneficiaries Potentially Eligible for Widow(er) Benefits. June 2020.
3- Cerulli Associates estimate of client-facing advisors in the U.S. in 2019. And Statista, Number of insurance agents, brokers and service personnel in the U.S. 1960-2018. Published by Jennifer Rudden, Nov 12, 2019