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Social Security: Tell clients to take a deep breath

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Shomari Hearn often tells his clients the maxim that most advisers know by heart: “Never rely exclusively on Social Security income.”

During the same conversations, he also frequently discusses clients’ concerns about the stability of the Social Security system.

These worries aren’t surprising. In almost every Congress during the past decade lawmakers have introduced numerous proposals to resolve the system’s potential future solvency issues by raising the age for retirement eligibility, even though more than 50% of Americans surveyed reject such changes.

“There is no question that there are questions about the long-term viability of the Social Security program,” says Hearn, a CFP and vice president, chief compliance officer and portfolio manager at Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “So, we work with clients.”

For Hearn and other veteran advisers, that “work” means helping clients talk through what might change with Social Security.

In preparation for such discussions, Sheryl Rowling, principal of Rowling & Associates in San Diego, keeps a list handy of perhaps unwelcome but nonetheless possible reforms to the Social Security system.

“I believe, like most people, that there will be changes,” she says.

Those changes might include the elimination or reduction of cost-of-living adjustments; increased taxability; a reduction of benefits based on adjusted gross incomes; and a reduction of benefits across the board.

But after reciting that list for clients, Rowling still warns them not to hasten their claims for benefits out of fear of that the system might suddenly change.

“I typically recommend waiting to claim Social Security benefits until full retirement age, especially when planning to continue working until then,” she says. “There has always been uncertainty about Social Security, at least as long as I've been in practice.”

If clients plan to retire prior to their full retirement age “and the monthly benefits might make a difference in lifestyle, then my vote is to take the benefits right away -- the bird in the hand,” Rowling says.

But “the best planning is to build your retirement nest egg so that you are not reliant on Social Security for survival,” she says.

Despite the pervasive insecurity about Social Security, Rowling recognizes that “mathematically speaking, if you plan on living into your 80s, you will come out ahead by delaying the receipt of Social Security benefits until at least full retirement age. However, this assumes that Social Security, as we know it, will still be in existence unchanged in the future.”

This story is part of a 30-30 series on Social Security.

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