Social Security expertise in short supply News added by Benefits Pro on August 28, 2014
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By Marlene Y. Satter

Retirement advisors regularly take continuing education courses to stay on top of their game but the need to incorporate planning for Social Security into their practices has left many of them behind the eight ball.

With retirement plan savings coming up short for many Americans, helping clients understand when might be best to begin to draw Social Security benefits has become a hot-button practice area. Even wealthier retirees — a vital demographic for growing an advisory business – depend on Social Security income. Moreover, the right Social Security claiming strategy can mean the differences of hundreds of thousands of dollars for some Americans.

Mark Kiner, president of Cincinnati, Ohio-based Premier Social Security Consulting, offers not just training on Social Security’s intricacies, but a certification that he hopes more advisors will pursue.

About 900 retirement advisors have so far gone through the training for the National Social Security Advisor, introduced in January of 2013, and about 500 have earned the certification.

“Clients are asking these questions (about Social Security) and advisors know they’re ill-equipped to handle them,” said Kiner, who’s been a CPA for 35 years. “They aren’t able to help them.”

Kiner started his company with Jim Blair, a former claims administrator at the Social Security Administration.

He said that many advisors will send clients to a local Social Security office, but that’s not the answer either, because Social Security administrators aren’t allowed to provide advice, only answer questions. And if clients don’t know the right questions to ask, they may never learn what they need to.

“Not being able to help clients means advisors can’t provide the value they need to provide, and their biggest mistake is to send clients (to Social Security offices, which are) ill-equipped (to help them) ... with so many more baby boomers (needing help), Social Security cutting office hours and staff. Demand is growing, but they’re cutting resources because of budget issues. The reps at the local office are basically just order-takers.”

Cheryl Robertson, whose Corporation for Social Security Claiming Strategies in September is launching its own certification — Certified in Social Security Claiming Strategies — says advisors who become educated in Social Security’s ins and outs can use that knowledge as a full-fledged practice development tool.

“Savvy folks who are well versed in finance and computers have some knowledge, not all the answers; (they) research (Social Security) online, go to seminars and ask real questions — serious questions about their own personal situations — but absent the education, the advisor can’t answer the question,” she says.

As Robertson points out, that’s not a good thing for the advisor, either: “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.”

She pointed to a study from the Pension Resource Council at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania that found that, while advisors overwhelmingly regarded themselves as well informed on Social Security, in actuality that was far from the case.

Instead, they were focusing on the wrong issues with their clients, such as the viability of the Social Security trust fund, rather than on how clients could maximize their Social Security income to lessen the chance of running out of money in retirement.

In addition, said Robertson, advisors fail to realize that the language they use influences whether clients claimed benefits early (Robertson said statistics show that 99 percent of the time, absent health or longevity issues, claiming early is the wrong choice) or chose to delay benefits and thus increase them.
In addition, the complexities presented by divorce, widowhood and other complications means that, unless an advisor is very familiar with all the rules surrounding these circumstances, she or he may not be able to provide the best advice.

Certification or not, a growing number of advisors are realizing the upside of getting up to speed on the ins and outs of Social Security.

Jim Blankenship of Blankenship Financial Planning in New Berlin, Illinois, does not carry a Social Security specialist designation, but specializes in retirement planning and has written a book titled “A Social Security Owner’s Manual.”

He began focusing on retirement planning about eight years ago, and if there’s one thing he’s sure of, it’s that more advisors need to educate themselves about Social Security.

Blankenship said that he spends a lot of time working with clients on the issue — “especially the folks that are dead-set on starting (to claim benefits) early. My experience has been that it’s really difficult to turn that ship around.”

However, he goes through an analysis with clients to demonstrate to them how they can maximize benefits, and that generally makes the difference.

“For a lot of folks, if I show them hard numbers (for what they would get) if they delay even four years vs. (claiming benefits) at 62, at least most are swayed by it. It doesn’t always mean that they will do the right thing, but without background and understanding of what’s available, they wouldn’t have that kind of advice given to them. (Advisors) need to have a broad background about the rules around all the various filing strategies, because even with these training programs, they certainly won’t get into all of these real-life situations to think about strategies.”

Shikha Mittra of Retire Smart Consulting in Princeton, New Jersey, said she’s heard some advisors dismiss the importance of a Social Security designation as a marketing gimmick, but that the need for expertise is very real.

“Filing too early is (some clients’) biggest mistake, or filing because they ‘deserve benefits and no one is going to stop them from taking it.’ (But if I give them a) detailed analysis of different scenarios, they can make an informed decision (instead),” Mittra said.

If clients are taking Social Security more seriously — something Mittra says she’s beginning to see — advisors certainly should as well.

“It’s important for advisors because it’s more and more important to the client,” Blankenship said. “While it’s one leg of the three-legged retirement income stool, with the others being savings and pensions, it’s the leg that’s becoming more and more important.”

Originally published on BenefitsPro.com
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