Research Reveals Social Security Knowledge Gap

It is critical that pre-retirees learn how benefits are calculated to improve their claiming decisions.

Research released today indicates that close to 100% of Americans could lack critical information about how to get the most from their Social Security benefits. According to “Social Security Planning in 2015 & Beyond: Perspectives of Future Beneficiaries and Financial Planners,” just 9% of consumers consider themselves “very knowledgeable about how Social Security benefits are determined,” and 1% of Certified Financial Planners (CFPs) say their clients are very knowledgeable on the subject.

The survey was a joint effort of the AARP and Financial Planning Association (FPA), an organization for CFPs, as well as educators, financial services professionals and students in that field. In it, the two organizations sought to explore how the experiences and knowledge of future Social Security beneficiaries compare with the experiences and recommendations of professional financial planners related to Social Security’s role in retirement income.”

The key takeaway for plan sponsors is that education is critical. Even consumers who claimed to be “somewhat knowledgeable” on the topic comprised just 38% of the responding group. From the CFPs’ perspective, just 31% of their clients are somewhat knowledgeable about the benefit.

“For families and individuals looking to claim their Social Security benefits soon, this survey shows that far too many face a claiming knowledge gap potentially leaving thousands of dollars on the table,” says AARP President Jeannine English.

“Social Security in retirement requires more than just retiring and collecting a monthly check from the government,” agrees FPA President Ed Gjertsen II, CFP. “There are many nuances to Social Security and ways to maximize benefits.”

 NEXT: What consumers don’t know


The 1,215 responding consumers—ages 45 through 64, all unretired—indeed recognized the value of exploiting Social Security: 77% called maximizing benefits “very important,” as did 85% of the 1,279 CFPs.

The reality, however, according to the survey, was that 83% of consumers overestimate or underestimate how much they would receive if they defer claiming Social Security until they reach 70—the maximum age to do so; 67% underestimate and 16% overestimate the hardship they would incur in waiting that long. “Only 57% know that even waiting past one’s full retirement age can result in further increases in benefits—leaving 42% who believe benefits will stay the same or be reduced after age 66 or 67,” the report says. Even while nearly three in 10 (28%) CFPs recommend that clients postpone drawing benefits until age 70, only 13% of consumers plan to heed the advice.

Additional findings indicate that pre-retirees may need more education to make the best decisions about the benefit for themselves and their families:

  • Fewer than four in 10 consumers (39%) believe Social Security will make up at least half of their income, even though AARP has reported that Americans increasingly rely on Social Security as they age—for upwards of 50% of their income by age 80. In fact, over four in 10 planners (42%) predicted that Social Security w be a major source of income in retirement for their clients.
  • Eighty percent of married or formerly married men are unaware that they should claim their own benefits at age 70 to maximize survivor, or “widow,” benefits, should they die first, with 69% incorrectly believing they could maximize survivor benefits by claiming before age 70 and 11% incorrectly believing they could do so by claiming after that.

NEXT: Where they get their info

  • Only half of these respondents knew they could receive their spouse’s Social Security benefits while he or she is still alive. Seventy-four percent of that group are unaware that they need to have been married for at least 10 years to collect spousal benefits if divorced, with 39% incorrectly believing they can collect if married less than that, 31% incorrectly believing they could never collect benefits from an ex-spouse’s work record, and 4% believing they would need to be married for 11 years or more.
  • About four in 10 (39%) consumers were unaware that 62 is the minimum age for claiming early Social Security retirement benefits.

Unsurprisingly, the survey indicated that Social Security beneficiaries would gain from better education, including the help of a CFP. Nearly half (46%) of CFPs recommend that their clients review their estimated Social Security retirement benefits at least once per year and nearly an equal amount (45%) say they should review their estimated benefits every couple of years. 

It also asked consumers where they get their financial information. Notably, 16% each cited their current or former employer, a professional financial adviser or the AARP; 46% look to family members or friends; 45% to the Social Security Administration; 33% to newspapers; 22%, to financial magazines or books; 17%, to financial television shows; 9% to a financial services firm; 7%, to an accountant; and 3% to an attorney.

For AARP’s contribution, GfK Roper conducted a national survey of the 1,215 adults, all eligible to receive Social Security at age 62, between June 22 and July 3. FPA completed an online survey of the 1,279 CFPs, all active FPA members, also between June 22 and July 3. The full results of both surveys may be found here.