By Lori Konish via CNBC.com
A recent report estimates that 9,224 widow and widower beneficiaries age 70 and above were underpaid approximately $131.8 million after getting misled by bad advice.
Be on the lookout for erroneous Social Security advice that could cost you.
Making a decision as to when to start claiming Social Security benefits can be fraught with risks.
And there’s one more danger many retirees may not be aware of: getting botched advice from the Social Security Administration.
A recent report from the agency’s Office of the Inspector General estimates that 9,224 widow and widower beneficiaries age 70 and above were underpaid approximately $131.8 million.
The report also projects that Social Security will underpay 1,899 beneficiaries by about $9.8 million annually when they turn 70.
Those estimates are based on a random sample of 50 beneficiaries that led the office to conclude that 11,123 recipients could be eligible for a larger monthly benefit.
The research found that claimants were not informed that they had the ability to take widow or widower’s benefits while delaying their own retirement benefits, which would allow those checks to increase.
“We did not find any evidence SSA had informed claimants of the option to delay their retirement application when they applied for benefits, as required,” the inspector general’s report states.
“We also found that SSA did not have controls in place to alert its employees when they should inform widow[er]s of their option to delay their applications for retirement benefits.”
The Social Security Administration said it is committed to improving its procedures in a written response to the report.
“We are currently developing our action plan that responds to the recommendations,” a Social Security Administration spokeswoman said.
Those who feel they could have been affected should bring it up with the Social Security Administration, said John Piershale, wealth advisor at Piershale Financial in Crystal Lake, Illinois.
“If you feel like something has gone wrong, when you’re dealing with people in business, it’s always best to check to see if there’s any recourse than to not do anything at all,” Piershale said.
Unfortunately, receiving the wrong advice on Social Security claiming strategies is common, according to Joe Elsasser, president of Covisum, a provider of Social Security Timing software.
That goes particularly for divorced widows, according to Elsasser, who may not know that their ex-spouse has died or that they are eligible to claim benefits on their ex’s work record.
“We see that sort of situation a lot, where a divorced spouse doesn’t have any idea what is available or what could be available based on their ex’s record,” Elsasser said.
Getting answers to those questions may depend on how you word them.
“If I call Social Security and ask about my ex’s benefit record, they’re not allowed to tell me much,” Elsasser said.
But if those questions are worded as to what happens to your benefits if you claim on your ex’s record, the agency will be more forthcoming, he said.
Former spouses must meet certain requirements in order to claim on an ex’s record. That includes being at least 62 years old, having been married at least 10 years and being currently unmarried.
All prospective beneficiaries should pay close attention to changing Social Security rules. That is because Congress eliminated certain claiming strategies as of 2016. Based on your birth date and year, you may be grandfathered in to those old rules.
“If you’re between 64 and 66 right now, you need to explore whether or not you have access to a restricted application,” Elsasser said. “That’s a big thing for that age group.”
A restricted application would allow you to claim a spousal benefit if you are married or divorced, while allowing your own retirement benefits to grow until you reach age 70. But this only applies if you were born on or before Jan. 1, 1954.
If you are eligible for a restricted claim, but file for your own benefit instead, you forfeit your right to that strategy.
“That’s where a lot of people leave money on the table,” Elsasser said.
If you file for benefits, you have up to 12 months to change your mind.
Reversing a decision can be a complicated process that sometimes requires the beneficiary to write a check to Social Security.
“Even though it’s uncomfortable, it can be very worth it,” Elsasser said. For example, one of his clients had to write a $19,000 check to the agency, but ultimately gained more than $100,000 in lifetime benefits by pursuing another strategy.
The Social Security Timing tool, which is largely used by financial advisors and companies, is also available to individuals. But Elsasser warns that using such a tool without considering your full financial plan could sway the results.
Erin Gibbons, a senior financial advisor at United Asset Strategies who specializes in Social Security advice, agreed.
“If you do not have an expert on your side, it is very difficult” to get accurate information to make the appropriate decision, Gibbons said.
The right financial professional can also help when it comes to trying to undo Social Security claiming decisions after that 12-month period, particularly when the decision was made based on incorrect information, he said.
“Anything beyond 12 months is a battle,” Gibbons said. “It’s a battle we’re happy to take.”