Social Security:

Improvements to Claims Process Could Help People Make Better Informed Decisions about Retirement Benefits

GAO-16-786: Published: Sep 14, 2016. Publicly Released: Sep 14, 2016.

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What GAO Found

GAO's review of nine surveys and academic studies, and interviews with retirement experts, suggest that many individuals do not fully understand key details of Social Security rules that can potentially affect their retirement benefits. For example, while some people understand that delaying claiming leads to higher monthly benefits, many are unclear about the actual amount that benefits increase with claiming age. The studies and surveys also found widespread misunderstanding about whether spousal benefits are available, how monthly benefits are determined, and how the retirement earnings test works. Understanding these rules and other information, such as life expectancy and longevity risk, could be central to people making well-informed decisions about when to claim benefits. By having this understanding of retirement benefits, people would also be in a better position to balance other factors that influence when they should claim benefits, including financial need, poor health, and psychological factors.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) makes comprehensive information on key rules and other considerations related to claiming retirement benefits available through its publications, website, personalized benefits statements, and online calculators. However, GAO observed 30 in-person claims at SSA field offices and found that claimants were not consistently provided key information that people may need to make well-informed decisions. For example, in 8 of 26 claims interviews in which the claimant could have received higher monthly benefits by waiting until a later age, the claims specialist did not discuss the advantages and disadvantages of delaying claiming. Further, only 7 of the 18 claimants for whom the retirement earnings test could potentially apply were given complete information about how the test worked. SSA's Program Operations Manual System (POMS) states that claims specialists should explain the advantages and disadvantages of filing an application so that the individual can make an informed filing decision. The problems we observed during the claims interviews occurred in part because the questions included in the claims process did not specifically cover some key information.

Online applicants have more access to key information on the screen or through tabs and pop-up boxes as they complete an application. However, similar to in-person interviews, the online application process does not inform claimants that benefits are based on the highest 35 years of earnings or that life expectancy is an important consideration in deciding when to claim.

Why GAO Did This Study

Many eligible individuals claim Social Security retirement benefits at the earliest eligibility age, even though they would receive higher benefits if they waited until older ages. In order to make an informed decision about when to claim, people need to understand how various Social Security rules and other factors affect benefit amounts. GAO was asked to examine these issues.

This report examines (1) the extent to which people understand Social Security rules affecting their retirement benefits; and (2) what information SSA provides to individuals to enable them to make informed claiming decisions. GAO observed a demonstration of the online claims process and a nongeneralizable sample of 30 in-person claims applications and inquiries in 7 field offices; reviewed applicable federal laws, regulations, and agency documentation; reviewed surveys and academic studies, selected in part based on expert referrals and a comprehensive review of the research literature; and interviewed Social Security experts and agency officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making six recommendations to SSA, including that SSA take steps to ensure that claims specialists provide information on delayed benefits that is consistent with POMS, and that the claims process provides claimants better information on the retirement earnings test. SSA generally agreed with our recommendations. recommendations.ns.ommendations.

For more information, contact Charles Jeszeck at (202) 512-7215 or jeszeckc@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: On 10/19/16, SSA sent a message to technicians (including claims representatives who discuss claiming with clients in field offices or over the phone) reminding them to 1) inform claimants that delaying results in permanently higher benefits; and 2) provide estimated benefits at different claiming ages. While the reminder message to claims specialists is a positive step by the agency, SSA should continue to send periodic messages about these requirements to claims specialists. Further, SSA should have field office managers periodically discuss best practices for providing this information to potential claimants at office training sessions.

    Recommendation: To ensure that key information provided by claims specialists to potential claimants of Social Security retirement benefits is clear and consistent with POMS, the Commissioner of the SSA should take steps to ensure when applicable, claims specialists inform that delaying claiming will result in permanently higher monthly benefit amounts, and at least offer to provide claimants their estimated benefits at their current age, at full retirement age (FRA) (unless the claimant is already older than FRA), and age 70.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: On 10/19/16, SSA sent a message to technicians (including claims representatives who discuss claiming with clients in field offices or over the phone) reminding them not to use breakeven analysis or discuss breakeven points with claimants to compare benefits at different claiming ages. While the reminder message to claims specialists is a positive step by the agency, SSA should continue to send periodic messages to claims specialist to ensure that they understand the requirement to avoid use of breakeven analysis to compare benefits at different claiming ages.

    Recommendation: To ensure that key information provided by claims specialists to potential claimants of Social Security retirement benefits is clear and consistent with POMS, the Commissioner of the SSA should take steps to ensure claims specialists understand that they should avoid the use of breakeven analysis to compare benefits at different claiming ages.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: SSA reported that, as appropriate, it will issue a reminder to technicians or include instructions in SSA's Program and Operations Manual System (POMS) to reinforce the instructions. The agency did not provide information on how it plans to include this information in the online claims process.

    Recommendation: To ensure potential claimants are consistently provided with key information during the claiming process to help them make informed decisions about when to claim benefits, SSA should take steps to ensure that when applicable, claims specialists inform claimants that monthly benefit amounts are determined by the highest (indexed) 35 years of earnings, and that in some cases, additional work could increase benefits.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: On 10/19/16, SSA sent a message to technicians (including claims representatives who discuss claiming with clients in field offices or over the phone) reminding them to inform claimants that any amounts withheld due to earnings (over limits) will result in higher benefits later on. While the reminder message to claims specialists is a positive step by the agency, SSA should continue to send periodic messages to claims specialist reinforcing the importance of explaining the earnings test, and informing potential claimants that any benefits withheld due to earnings will result in higher benefits starting at FRA. Further, SSA should have field office managers periodically discuss best practices for providing this information to potential claimants at office training sessions.

    Recommendation: To ensure potential claimants are consistently provided with key information during the claiming process to help them make informed decisions about when to claim benefits, SSA should take steps to ensure that when appropriate, claims specialists clearly explain the retirement earnings test and inform claimants that any benefits withheld because of earnings above the earnings limit will result in higher monthly benefits starting at FRA.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: SSA stated that it will issue a reminder to technicians, instructing them to explain that a lump sum retroactive benefit would result in a permanent reduction in monthly benefits; or include instructions in SSA's Program and Operations Manual System (POMS). As for the question included in the online process, SSA said it will explore the underlying rationale for this question and consider modifying the question.

    Recommendation: To ensure potential claimants are consistently provided with key information during the claiming process to help them make informed decisions about when to claim benefits, SSA should take steps to ensure that claims specialists explain that lump sum retroactive benefits will result in a permanent reduction of monthly benefits. For the online claiming process, SSA should evaluate removing or revising the online question that asks claimants to provide a reason for not choosing retroactive benefits.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: SSA updated Pub No. 05-10147 to mention that: 1) monthly benefits are higher for the rest of one's life the longer one delays claiming; 2) retirement may be longer than you think; and 3) for married couples, delaying claiming may increase survivor benefits. SSA also added a new question on this topic to its frequently asked questions (FAQ) page, "At what age should I start receiving my Social Security Retirement benefits?" The answer provides key information for individuals to consider, and links to the newly updated publication, the Retirement Estimator tool, and other resources that SSA offers. Updating and improving a key publication on this topic is a positive step by the agency. However, it is not clear if claimants will be able to access this information while they are applying for retirement benefits online. Further, SSA did not specify how it plans to instruct claims specialists to provide information on life expectancy and longevity risk during the in-person claims process.

    Recommendation: To ensure potential claimants are consistently provided with key information during the claiming process to help them make informed decisions about when to claim benefits, SSA should take steps to ensure that the claims process include basic information on how life expectancy and longevity risk may affect the decision to claim benefits.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

 

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