Here is the bottom-line message of this column: If there is any doubt or question in your mind about your eligibility for any Social Security benefit, insist on filing a claim for that benefit. You have every right to do so. Now, let me explain this in more detail.
I hear from readers all the time who tell me they talked to a Social Security Administration representative about their potential eligibility for a given benefit and were either bluntly told they weren’t eligible or were otherwise discouraged from filing a claim. So, the person making the inquiries is sent away empty-handed, but oftentimes still has lingering doubts about his or her possible entitlement to benefits.
If you are ever in that situation, let me repeat: Insist on filing a claim. It’s your legal right, and by doing so, you accomplish two things. No. 1: You will get a legal decision about your eligibility for benefits, not just one Social Security clerk’s opinion. No. 2: You will have appeal rights. In other words, if your claim is denied and you still are not satisfied, you can ask that your claim be reviewed. You even could take it all the way to the Supreme Court if you wanted to! That last comment is a little far-fetched (although feasible). However, the basic point I am making is very valid. If an SSA rep just says no and you walk away only to later learn you were due benefits, you generally won’t be able to do anything about it but gripe — and then file a claim with no retroactivity. But if you actually file a claim the first time and it is denied, and you later are able to prove your eligibility, you will get full retroactive benefits to the date you filed the claim.
As I said, I hear from lots of readers who are given the cold shoulder by an SSA representative. Of course, sometimes the informal denial is entirely appropriate. For example, if you are only 60 years old and try to file for Social Security retirement benefits, and you are told you must be at least 62 to be eligible for such benefits, that’s an accurate response and there is really nothing you can do.
But many times, the situation is more of a gray area, and if the SSA rep just turns you away and doesn’t offer you the chance to file for benefits, he or she isn’t doing a good job. In a minute, I’ll give some examples I’ve heard from readers. But first, I want to make this point. When I started working for the SSA back in the early 1970s, it was drilled into us almost from day one of our training class that people had every right to file for any benefit they thought they might be due and that it was our job to help them file such claims. In fact, the staffing of any Social Security field office was determined, in part, by the number of claims taken. So, there was that extra incentive to help people file claims for benefits: More claims meant more staff. It was as simple as that. But based on the number of complaints I get from readers who tell me that they are discouraged from filing for benefits, I’m guessing that staffing procedure doesn’t exist anymore at the SSA.
Here are some recent emails from readers with examples of what I am talking about.
Q: Even though my husband and I lived together for 20 years, we didn’t actually get married until two years ago. Sadly, he died last month. I’m 68 years old and get a small Social Security benefit on my own record. When I went down to the Social Security office to file for widow’s benefits, the clerk told me we had to be married at least 10 years, so she said I wasn’t due anything. She helped me file for the $255 death benefit, and that’s all I got. But lately, some friends told me I should be getting widow’s benefits. What should I do?
A: You should march right back into that Social Security office and insist on filing a claim for widow’s benefits. The 10-year duration-of-marriage rule applies only to divorced spouses. You were married to your husband at the time he died, so that rule doesn’t apply to you. The SSA rep you talked to should have known that. If you get the same person again, ask to speak to a supervisor. But whatever you do, don’t leave the office until you file a claim for widow’s benefits.
Q: Not too long ago, you wrote a column explaining the rules for getting benefits as a divorced wife. Here is my story. I am 65 and get a very small Social Security retirement benefit because I didn’t work much outside the home. My husband, on the other hand, had a very good job and made a decent living. We were married for about 30 years. We divorced three years ago. Neither of us has remarried. He is also 65 years old and doesn’t plan to file for Social Security benefits until he is 70. Your column said that I should be able to get benefits on his record even though he hasn’t filed yet. So, I called Social Security’s 800 number and explained my situation. The phone rep told me that I can’t get any benefits from my ex until he files for Social Security himself. I read her the part of your column that said I am due benefits now, and she said, “Who are you going to believe: some clueless guy who writes a newspaper column, or me, an official government representative?” And then she hung up! So, what do you suggest I do?
A: Well, I don’t suppose it would help to call her back and tell her that the “clueless guy” worked for the Social Security Administration for 32 years and has written a nationally syndicated column about Social Security for about 25 years. I don’t think it would impress her.
But here’s what should impress her. Either go to your local Social Security office or call the toll-free number (800-772-1213) and absolutely insist on filing a claim. The law clearly says a divorced woman can file for benefits on an ex-husband’s record even if he is not yet collecting benefits. He must be old enough to be eligible for Social Security — essentially meaning he has to be 62 or older. But that’s it. Then, once your benefits start and you get an official “award letter,” it would be great if you could somehow track down that phone rep who wouldn’t let you file a claim, read her the award letter and tell her that despite her failings as a public servant, the “clueless guy” helped you get your benefits started.
Anyway, I hope all my readers got the message of this column: When in doubt, demand to file a claim for benefits to protect your rights and get a legal decision.
If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has two books with all the answers. One is called “Social Security — Simple and Smart: 10 Easy-to-Understand Fact Sheets That Will Answer All Your Questions About Social Security.” The other is “Social Security: 100 Myths and 100 Facts.” You can find the books at Amazon.com or other book outlets. To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.