Near-retirees still have a lot to learn about their Social Security retirement benefits, according to a new nationwide poll released by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company this week.

Nearly half (47 percent) of Americans age 50 and over failed a basic true/false question quiz on Social Security retirement benefits. Still, that’s an improvement over three years ago when MassMutual surveyed the nation with a broader true/false question quiz, which 62 percent of respondents age 50 and over failed, and 72 percent of the general population failed.

"There's improvement, but the scores are still alarming," said Mike Fanning, head of MassMutual U.S. 

"Knowledge is power when it comes to Social Security retirement benefits,” Fanning said. “For many, thousands of dollars could be left on the table at a time when it really counts."

The findings of the 2018 MassMutual Social Security survey of 1,007 Americans age 50 and up are eye-opening. The respondents were posed several statements and asked to rate them “true” or “false.”

  • "Under current Social Security law, my benefits will not be reduced if I claim them at age 65." Only 49 percent answered this correctly: FALSE.
  • "My spouse is eligible to receive Social Security retirement benefits, even if he or she has no individual earnings history." Only 54 percent answered this correctly: TRUE.
  • "If my spouse dies, I will continue to receive both my own benefit and my deceased spouse's benefit; the total Social Security benefits I receive will not change." Eighty percent answered this one correctly: FALSE.
  • "Social Security retirement benefits are based on my earnings history; I'll receive the same monthly benefit amount whether I start collecting before or after my full retirement age." Eighty-three percent answered this question correctly: FALSE.
  • "If I am still working when I claim my Social Security, my benefit might be reduced, depending on my earnings and my age." Eighty-five percent answered this question correctly: TRUE.

Obviously, the opportunities for advisors to help pre-retirees are vast.

“The most concerning issue I see is that clients believe they get both their own and their spouse’s Social Security benefits when a spouse dies,” said T. Eric Reich, president of Reich Asset Management in Marmora, N.J., in an interview with Financial Advisor. “It’s actually the higher of yours or your spouse’s,” Reich said.

Indeed, 80% of those surveyed said they will receive both their own and their deceased spouse’s benefits. “If a spouse’s benefits are higher, the difference is added to the surviving wife’s or husband’s benefits,” Reich added.

Getting Social Security right is critically important because hitting the reset button may be difficult if not downright impossible later in life, Fanning said. 

"This is not a retirement planning conversation,” said Fanning. “This is a longevity planning conversation, and near-retirees have the power and responsibility to ensure that they protect and receive every dollar they deserve in Social Security retirement benefits when the time comes."

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