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Helping Advisors Boost Their Social Security Skills

Everyone needs to deal with the question, no matter their socio-economic status

Financial planners can earn a dizzying number of professional designations; the alphabet soup includes the CFP, CPA, CFC, CLU and CFA.

Now add two more to the list: NSSA and CSSCS.

These acronyms are meant to certify that an advisor has been trained to advise clients on filing for Social Security. The National Social Security Advisor designation was introduced last year, the Certified in Social Security Claiming Strategies designation will be rolled out in September.

Both designations are part of a growing cottage industry of businesses focused on training advisors to help clients to get the most out of Social Security. Some of the businesses offer certifications; others offer programs and online tools to help advisors and clients make decisions. Still others seek to make the process of maximizing Social Security benefits a full-fledged practice development tool.

The jury’s out on whether the planning profession will embrace formal certification on Social Security. But one thing’s clear: advisors do need to up their game when it comes to advising clients on what arguably is the most important retirement benefit for most households.

Advisors often don't provide the best advice to their clients – especially on the optimal age for claiming benefits. A 2012 study by the Pension Research Council at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, found that conversations between advisors and clients often focus on the wrong topics - such as political questions swirling around the program, which are very unlikely to lead to benefit cuts and in any event aren’t relevant to clients getting close to filing age.

The study also found that many advisors frame the decision in terms that incorrectly encourage early filing decisions. And a relatively small number were inclined toward strategies that encourage delayed filing - despite strong arguments in favor of delaying claiming, especially for couples.

“Most advisors know nothing about Social Security - they look at it as a foreign language,” says Marc Kiner, president of Premier Social Security Consulting, which created the NSSA designation and has trained 800 advisors to date. Kiner, a CPA, launched the company with Jim Blair, a former claims administrator at the Social Security Administration.

Premier got a boost in June when it was tapped by Financial Engines to participate in a new Social Security advisory service for 401(k) plans. The Financial Engines rollout itself sends a strong signal about the importance of Social Security optimization; the company is the nation’s largest independent advisory firm, and the service is now available to nine million 401(k) savers. Kiner says Premier has trained ten Financial Engines staff who are providing one-on-one Social Security advice to participants in workplace plans.

The CSSCS designation will be offered starting in September by The Corporation for Social Security Claiming Strategies, a new player in the industry launched by attorney Cheryl Robertson and staffed by several former SSA managers. The company has developed an online training platform containing 14 chapters on various aspects of Social Security that advisors can take at their own pace, and 1.5-day classes will start this fall; taking the firm’s certification exam is optional.

Several established players already offer Social Security training, albeit without a certification. Horsesmouth, which provides a wide array of advisor training, has had a Social Security program since 2008 that includes a self-study program, a tool for building claiming scenarios and regular bi-weekly updates. This year, the company began offering two-day Social Security workshops.

“Interest in Social Security [from advisors] is accelerating,” says William T. Nicklin, Horsesmouth’s CEO. “Research we did back in 2008 showed that Social Security expertise would be a good differentiator for advisers - most of them didn’t know much about it, and most of them still don’t. It’s clear that maximizing Social Security is the big question for every retiree - and every financial advisor should be able to add some value on this question.”

Nicklin says Horsesmouth has thought about adding a certification, but has been “leery about wading into the murky waters of retirement designations. Some of them are valid and are great credentials, but some of them are bogus, and it’s not clear what the alphabet soup really means to clients.” He adds that the company’s training can qualify advisors for continuing education credits.

Andy Landis is another established player in the Social Security training space. A veteran of the Social Security Administration, he is the author of “Social Security: The Inside Story,” and frequently trains CFPs, CPAs and other financial professionals through organizations such as the Financial Planning Association, the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, the AICPA and onsite for practice groups. 

Software-based decision tools are another important component of Social Security advisor support. Horsesmouth is working to migrate online a set of spreadsheet-based tools to run calculations to help maximize Social Security benefits. Social Security Solutions, which has built its reputation around its online decision software, does one-on-one consulting with consumers but also licenses its solution to advisers and trains them.

The company was co-founded by William Reichenstein, a professor at Baylor University who has written extensively on Social Security planning, and William Meyer, a financial-services industry veteran. It is providing Social Security training as part of the The American College’s Retirement Income Certified Professional program, and doing its own workshops and one-off advanced trainings with advisors.

Social Security Solutions currently offers two hours of free training on its website that can be used to qualify for CFP continuing education credit, and it is working on a broader portal that will offer online training and videos; William Meyer, co-founder of the company, says he’s also is working to develop a certification program, which will be linked to continuing education and backed by a university.

Social Security Solutions’ training focuses on basic Social Security rules, advanced strategies for integrating Social Security into a broader financial plan and information about using Social Security for practice development.

“The insurance industry has been the most aggressive about using Social Security for practice development,” says Meyer. “They’re interested in selling annuities, so Social Security is a great way to get in front of someone interested in guaranteed income.”

But interest in Social Security training today is much broader, he adds with interest coming from every corner of the advisory market.

Nicklin agrees: “It’s a great business development topic, because everyone needs to deal with the question, no matter their socio-economic status.”

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