January 18, 2022

Do you have a question about social security? These 20,000 people may have an answer

Devin Carroll knew that Social Security is the backbone of many Americans’ retirement security, and yet, because it’s immensely complicated to understand, and everyone’s situation is different, people often miss out when they claim these benefits.

As a result, there was a “huge hunger” for Social Security information, so Carroll, founder of Carroll Advisory Group, created a blog called Social Security Intelligence and started in 2015 with a Youtube Channel, although it didn’t gain much traction at first. Two years after leaving the YouTube project, he noticed that one of his videos had 40,000 views, so he decided to try again. His videos and blogs eventually attracted so many visitors – with thousands of hits – that he was bombarded with questions.

“It got to the point where I couldn’t help people anymore,” he said. “It would have taken all day and then some to respond to these emails.” Instead he created a group on Facebook in 2019, where people could ask and answer questions. It is one of many groups devoted to personal finance.

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The group, called the Social Security Intelligence Member’s Group, has 21,300 members who discuss strategies and examine the extensive rules under the Social Security Administration. Carroll has administrators who manage the page and provide answers to questions from users. Other members also join in to give their perspective. “It gives them a community,” Carroll said. “The community is responding. And if someone gives a wrong answer, someone calls on that person.”

While there’s always the potential for someone to do something wrong, the crowd is big enough that someone can step in if something doesn’t sound right, Carroll said. “In terms of risks, none of the conversations in this group are believed to be actually qualified ‘advice,’ but just conversations with other people who may know a little more,” he said.

Carroll spoke to MarketWatch about his group, the complexities of Social Security, and what individuals can do to help themselves. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Market overview: What are some of the most frequently asked questions in the group?

Devin Carroll: There are two that we see a lot. One — about partner benefits and how they are calculated. Questions like, “I’m 66 and my wife is 62. If I wait to claim benefits, but she files a return now, how will that affect partner benefits later?” or a variant thereof. The frequently heard general topic is: how do you calculate a partner allowance? The other one we get a lot of is, “If I submit my file before full retirement age, what actually counts as income?” Because there is an income limit.

MG: Do users also share their experiences?

Caroll: They will share the good and the bad. In many cases, they’ll say things like, “I went to apply for X benefit and was told this, but I knew it wasn’t right, so I went back and was told this again, so I went back.” after I read the rules.” That’s a common thing we’ll see, as well as, “I got bad information from a technician at the Social Security Administration, I showed them to prove I was right.” In many cases, they will also say, “I had an appointment today and they told me this, but it doesn’t sound right. What do you think?” And the community will continue to share their thoughts and the links of the SSA rulebook or perhaps the code of federal regulation pertaining to that particular part of the law.

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MG: Social security is very complex. What are the best strategies for introducing people to these rules?

Caroll: Once they get through the free stuff like the Facebook group and YouTube and blog – if they haven’t answered their questions, it’s time to take it to the next level with a consultation with one of my registered Social Security analysts. There is the National Association of Registered Social Security Analysts, so they can go to: that website and find an advisor or they can use my link and talk to someone who is on my dedicated team. Not everyone needs these services. Sometimes it’s very simple and I see a tendency in many people to exaggerate things. It’s not that hard to do when you’re in the Social Security rulebook because that can lead to complications and a lot of double-talk. Sometimes it’s like reading the Bible.

MG: Do you ever see questions about Social Security in the future? I know many younger generations are concerned about that.

Caroll: It’s not just younger generations who are asking that. Many people, including those who have reached the age of eligibility, who have just turned 62 or will be within a few years, base their decisions on the idea that there will be no Social Security. That’s an erroneous assumption for a number of reasons. The trust funds become exhausted, after which 75-78% of the distributions are still paid out. That is if nothing is done. But I really think what’s most likely going to happen is there’s going to be some changes in the system, but I don’t think it’s going to affect anyone who’s close to Social Security age right now. The Social Security Administration has a long history of making changes in phases.

For those people who are not close to full retirement age, I think Social Security will go through some changes and I don’t know exactly what those changes will be.

MG: I know that an account with the Social Security Administration is important. Is that something you advise people to do?

Caroll: That should be part of your annual financial assessment. Every year you should log into your Social Security Administration account and check the earnings to make sure they are accurate.

There are a number of reasons why information is missing, but the truth is that it just happens. Billions of dollars go into the revenue and the administration can’t always match it, so I tell people by September every year to check the previous year because if you’re 10-15 years down and then you’re trying to fix missing revenue, you can do it, but you really have to chase it. A year of delinquent income can make a difference to your benefit.

Also see: Social security recipients get a big raise, but also lag further behind

MG: Why is it important to have a community about something as complex as Social Security?

Caroll: Being able to figure out how the rules apply to their individual and specific circumstances is probably the most valuable part of it. We hear a lot about the rules of thumb. One example I absolutely hate is that you can afford to defer Social Security. That’s a terrible rule. What if you have children at home, or a partner of a different age, and by waiting until the age of 70 you ensure that they are deferred from receiving benefits? There are a number of ways in which the rules of thumb should be challenged and the group is very good at that.

We see comments all the time with people coming back to thank the group saying that they just applied for benefits that they wouldn’t have received or know if they hadn’t been to that group. It’s hard to say the Social Security Administration would have told them the same thing.

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