Getting a complex question answered about Social Security isn't easy. Neither is figuring out how much money you might be entitled to if you utilize some of the less well-known strategies available under the program.
For instance, heaven help you if you are a widow entitled to any combination of your late spouse's worker benefits, your own worker benefits and survivor benefits -- especially if you and your late spouse were divorced. Unraveling the options is a mind-boggling exercise, and you may not get the right answer, even from your local Social Security office. But pick the wrong option and you could cheat yourself out of thousands of dollars.
The Social Security Advisory Board, a nonpartisan governmental entity whose responsibilities include advising the president, Congress and the commissioner of Social Security, has a mandate to increase public understanding of the Social Security system. In the wake of last week's passage of the 2014 federal budget, the board released a recommendation that Social Security improve its communications with the public.
Jeremy Elder, executive assistant at the Social Security Advisory Board, says this is the second time the board has officially urged Social Security to do a better job of talking to its constituents. It released a similar official advisory in 2009, which Elder says was largely ignored. But this time, Elder thinks that there could be some action because the 2014 budget includes money earmarked to improve Social Security's communications, including making paper versions of annual Social Social statements available to those who want them instead of finding the information online.
"The Social Security Administration doesn't offer much in terms of a comprehensive resource," Elder says. "They have helpful pamphlets, but there is a lot of confusion in some areas. I've been working here for three years and I learn something every day."
With Social Security an increasingly important part of most people's retirement planning, providing information that is easy to find and understand about the retirement claiming options, especially complex ones, seems like a low-cost, high-return service that our government could easily provide for us. Besides making the rules clearer and offering more details about them, Social Security also could provide calculators that help participants predict and compare their benefit options. Several of these calculators are available, but they are created by a growing network of advisory businesses that typically charge $50 to use one. Considering that this is public information, the idea that it should be mostly available for a fee is absurd.
Elder says that the advisory board has made similar suggestions, but Social Security's answer has always been, "We are strapped for cash." Now that there is money in the budget specifically for this purpose, Social Security participants should see some action -- and some better information.