Consulting the right advisor, or even an array of online tools, could bring you thousands of dollars in additional lifetime benefits.
By Mark Miller | 07-16-13 | 06:00 AM | Email Article

Fee-Based Tools
Although most of us tend to look for free stuff online, paying a fee for Social Security assistance can be worth a small investment because the payback in lifetime benefits for a good strategy could total tens of thousands of dollars, depending on your longevity. Fees vary from $40 to several hundred dollars.

Retirement columnist Mark Miller writes about trends in retirement, aging, and the economy. He is the author of The Hard Times Guide to Retirement Security: Practical Strategies for Money, Work and Living, and writes a syndicated column for Reuters. Mark blogs at RetirementRevised.com Twitter: @retirerevised.

SocialSecuritySolutions offers a variety of fee-based services, with price depending on how much personal assistance you want. This resource is simple to use and generates an easy-to-understand downloadable report containing recommendations on how you can maximize benefits. It's especially good at identifying strategies for married couples. To get a report, simply input names, marital status, birth dates, and best-guess life expectancy along with your projected Social Security benefit at full retirement age. You can also get a personal consultation with one of the firm's advisors.

Maximize My Social Security is powered by ESPlanner, a broader financial-planning software application developed by Laurence Kotlikoff, an economics professor at Boston University and expert on Social Security. This tool requires more work on your part, but it also gives you the power to customize results based on your assumptions about your future earnings, inflation, and economic growth. You can even change the projections if you think Social Security benefits will be cut in the future.

Free Online Tools
Social Security Administration Retirement Estimator. This tool estimates benefits based on your personal earnings record. It also allows you to run scenarios based on alternate filing dates. But you can't run spousal or survivor scenarios here.

T. Rowe Price Social Security Benefits Evaluator. The mutual fund giant recently launched a tool that offers some of the features available from fee-based tools. Begin by inputting basic information about yourself and your spouse. Then select among various Social Security goals--for example, setting different retirement ages for yourself and a spouse, maximizing lifetime benefits, taking benefits as soon as possible, or maximizing income for a surviving spouse. The tool then describes a strategy for achieving those goals.

AARP Social Security Benefits Estimator. AARP offers a calculator that lets you do "what if" planning based on taking Social Security at different ages. It's similar to the SSA's estimator in this way, though it also estimates the percent of your living expenses that will be covered by Social Security--and it allows you to tweak the expense assumptions. Unfortunately, the tool doesn't include any spousal or survivor decision-making tools. AARP also offers a useful database of thousands of frequently-asked questions about Social Security.

AnalyzeNow was created as a labor of love by Henry "Bud" Hebeler after his own retirement from  Boeing , where he was a top executive and corporate planner. Hebeler offers a wide array of free retirement-planning tools, including a very robust Social Security decision-making tool. You must input a fair amount of data on your own, including estimates of tax rates in retirement, rates of return on investments, and future inflation rates. And the tools are spreadsheet-based, so they require basic computer and spreadsheet literacy.

Social Security Timing sells its flagship filing-decision software only to financial advisors but offers consumers a free snapshot recommendation on possible spousal options.

Social Security Choices was developed by a team of economists. Several free basic calculators are offered; in-depth software is sold to financial advisors for a fee.

Spousal and survivor benefits FAQ. My website, RetirementRevised.com, has a page of frequently asked questions about spousal and survivor strategies.

Ask Mary Jane is a free service provided by the National Committee to Protect Social Security and Medicare.

Mark Miller is a retirement columnist and author of The Hard Times Guide to Retirement Security: Practical Strategies for Money, Work and Living. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Morningstar.com.

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