Because affluent clients are least dependent on Social Security, he says, they are probably more at risk of being affected by future changes-through either a cut in benefits or a hike in taxes.

And if benefits were cut, planners say, even some affluent clients would feel the pinch. Ehrlich notes that $15,000 per year in Social Security benefits equates to a $300,000 pot of money, assuming an annual withdrawal rate of 5%. For those with $1 million set aside, and a 5% withdrawal rate, an annual $15,000 Social Security benefit amounts to an extra 30% in income, Ehrlich says. If that income were to disappear, Ehrlich says, such a client would have to risk increasing distributions, lowering expenses or possibly adding income through a part-time job.

Michael Kitces, director of financial planning with Pinnacle Advisory Group in Columbia, Md., says even for clients with assets in the $500,000 to $1 million range, a cut in benefits "would matter. They'd feel it, they'd notice the difference." Those with less than $300,000 to $500,000 "will certainly be counting on Social Security for a substantial amount of income," he says. Clients with $2 million or more, he adds, are at the point "where it's extra gravy, but they'll probably maintain the same standard of living regardless."

For the bulk of his firm's clients, who have assets averaging about $800,000, a cut in Social Security would have some impact but it "wouldn't be the doom of their retirement," he says.

Joseph Janiczek, founder and chairman of Janiczek & Company in Greenwood Village, Colo., also feels that his clientele is most likely to be affected by a change in benefits or funding. "Basically, if you would be in the top 2% to 3% of wealth in the nation, I think you're going to be a prime target," he says.

The greatest risk to such clients, he says, is being forced to increase their annual distribution in retirement to risky levels. At Janiczek's firm, that is considered to be anything more than 4.5% of liquid assets. "That is really pushing distribution rates into a very vulnerable level," he says. "The chances of someone depleting their wealth increase quite substantially."

Many advisors feel that neither cuts in benefit nor tax hikes would be needed to save Social Security if the retirement system were managed more aggressively. Rather than rely on Treasury bonds and annual 3% growth, some advocated a transition of Social Security funds to equity markets and possibly private management.

Such a system could be modeled after the way TIAA-CREF manages the nation's teacher retirement system, says Somnath Basu, professor of finance and director of financial planning programs at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif. "They've done a fabulous job, and they make a case for professional management," he says. "If I had a choice between giving money to the government and giving it to TIAA-CREF, it wouldn't be a choice for me."

Robert Fragasso, president of the Fragasso Group in Pittsburgh, feels Social Security could easily attain a 9% return by investing in equities. "Social Security works at 9%. It doesn't work at 5%," he says. What he proposes is that 25% of a worker's contribution be invested in no-load mutual fund devoted to equities, either by the government or by letting the individual keep the money and manage it. Similar proposals have been criticized as being too risky when they've been brought up in the past, but Fragasso feels the market's history has shown a consistent reversion to the mean. "The bogeyman of the early '30s crash and Depression is the specter that people use to ward off a more progressive view," he says.

Planners seem to be divided on the idea of giving individuals the right to manage their own Social Security funds. Some, such as Basu, feel that the majority of Americans have already shown themselves to be unable to adequately manage their 401(k) plans. There's no reason to believe they would act any differently if given a free hand to manage funds that were originally designed to be their retirement "safety net," Basu says.