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Helping veterans maximize Social Security benefits

Many veterans claim benefits too early, a Kiplinger survey concluded.

Susan Walsh /ASSOCIATED PRESS

Many veterans claim benefits too early, a Kiplinger survey concluded.

You’ve heard of Veterans Day deals. Well, there’s one special offer — access to an online tool to help the nation’s military maximize their Social Security benefits — that could put more money in the pockets of veterans. But it’s free on Nov. 11 only.

The Social Security Administration’s website is user-friendly, with a lot of free information about the options for collecting benefits. You won’t, however, get specific advice on what you should do.

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So on Veterans Day, Kiplinger Washington Editors (which publishes Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine), Social Security Solutions, and Wells Fargo are partnering to offer one-day free access to an online retirement planning tool for all active duty and retired military members and their widows or widowers. Military families will get recommended strategies for claiming Social Security benefits and explanations about how the choices affect what they’ll get.

Social Security is a key part of most Americans’ retirement income. But when should you start collecting it? If you choose to take it early, at 62, you get less. But do you know how much less, compared to waiting until your full retirement age? Can you afford to wait to collect at 70, when your amount will be even higher?

The free online tool for military folks will be available only on Monday at www.SocialSecurityforVeterans.com.

But there are a number of free Social Security calculators online. I like AARP’s (www.aarp.org/socialsecuritybenefits). AARP’s tool also provides advice on when to claim benefits. Additionally, it includes a feature that estimates what percentage of your Social Security benefits would cover some basic monthly expenses.

But since it’s free for a day, it doesn’t hurt to try out the Kiplinger’s Social Security Solutions tool.

It’s tailored to help retired and current military members and spouses figure out the best strategy to maximize their lifetime, inflation-adjusted Social Security benefits, said Kevin McCormally, editorial director of Kiplinger Washington Editors. The tool includes information on certain years of active-duty military service that may result in special credits to boost Social Security payments.

The online software, created by Social Security Solutions, produces a personalized, downloadable 23-page report. Kiplinger sells its branded version of the tool for $49.95. Wells Fargo is underwriting the cost to provide the report for veterans.

Kiplinger has commissioned a survey to gauge what veterans know about collecting Social Security benefits.

More than seven in 10 veterans “didn’t know” or “underestimated” how much monthly benefits are reduced if they claim benefits at 62.

Nearly nine in 10 did not realize how much benefits would increase if they wait until age 70. The survey found that 80 percent of vets who were collecting benefits had claimed them at 62.

Let’s put a figure on the cost of knowing, as Kiplinger points out. A retiree is due to collect $1,200 a month at 66, his full retirement age. But if he decides to start collecting early at 62, he instead gets $900 a month. If he waits until 70, he’ll collect $1,584.

To use the tool, you’ll need to divulge some personal information, such as age and marital status. You’ll also need to know the estimated monthly Social Security benefit you’ll receive if you start collecting benefits at your full retirement age. It is information you’ll find on your Social Security statement.

You can get your statement online at www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount. Please be careful about typing in the Web address.

To create an account, you’ll have to answer some personal questions to verify your identity. It doesn’t take long to go through the verification process and set up a username and password. Once you’ve created an account, you can view your report, download it, and print it.

Because the rules for when you can claim Social Security can be complicated, take advantage of this customized tool, says Don Blandin, chief executive of the Investor Protection Trust, which is collaborating with Kiplinger’s on this outreach effort. The trust has been involved in a number of projects to help military families prepare for their long term financial security, Blandin says.

“Military families have sacrificed much for our freedoms,” he says. “Most of them are not eligible for military retirement pay. Many of them have not been able to save as much as they had hoped for retirement.

“Maximizing Social Security retirement benefits means that veterans can have higher benefits later in life, when their other resources may be running short, and it can mean the maximum in survivor benefits after the first spouse dies.”

Michelle Singletary can be reached at michelle.singletary@washpost.com.
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