Social Security And You

By Tom Margenau

June 15, 2015 6 min read

I've written columns similar to this before, but I must keep repeating the following message: Whenever you are not sure whether you are eligible for any kind of Social Security benefit, it never hurts to actually file a claim for that benefit. You have every right in the world to do so.

Today's column was prompted by several recent email exchanges I've had with readers. I will use two of them as examples.

Robin filed for her own reduced retirement benefit at age 62. That was about four years ago. Her husband, Jim, recently turned 65 and applied for his own Social Security benefit.

After reading a recent column of mine, Robin wondered whether she could file for any supplemental spousal benefits on Jim's record. She gave me the benefit amounts involved. Jim's benefit was much more than Robin's rate. I won't bore my readers with all the math, but I told Robin that it appeared as though she might be due a few extra bucks in wife's benefits from her husband's Social Security account to supplement her smaller retirement check. I told her to call the Social Security Administration hotline at 800-772-1213 to check into this.

About a week later, she emailed me again. She said she talked to a woman at the call center, who told her that because she filed for reduced retirement benefits at 62, she could not file for any benefits on her husband's record. And that ended the phone call.

I explained to Robin that based on what she told me about her conversation with the Social Security agent, I thought she got some bum advice. (I must point out here that as I discussed in another recent column, sometimes people present one set of "facts" about their situation to me and another set of "facts" when they talk to a Social Security representative. This is sometimes why they get conflicting advice from me and from SSA.)

Anyway, here is a little more clarification of Robin's situation. The information the SSA representative gave Robin is usually correct. You normally cannot file for reduced retirement benefits on your own record and later switch to higher benefits on a spouse's record -- if that spouse is already getting Social Security. But in this case, her husband was not yet receiving Social Security when she filed for her reduced benefits. So when Jim later filed for his benefits, Robin should, at that point, have seen whether she could get a spousal supplement from his account.

My educated guess (based on the numbers that came out of my dollar-store calculator sitting on my desk) was that Robin might be due about $200 extra on Jim's account. But the SSA official told her she wasn't due anything. Obviously, one of us didn't have all the facts and was wrong.

And this is a classic example of the focus of this column: Robin has every right in the world to file a claim for spousal benefits on Jim's Social Security record. By doing so, she will get a formal and legal decision about her eligibility. And believe me, that is a whole lot better than the possibly skewed opinion of a word scribbler like me with a cheap calculator or the possibly incorrect information from a maybe harried and overworked Social Security clerk.

I can't stress enough the importance of getting that legal decision -- the result of actually filing a claim for benefits. If Robin doesn't file a claim and it turns out that either I or the Social Security rep was wrong, the most she will get from us is a "Sorry!" But when she files a claim and gets a formal decision in writing from the government, it comes with a host of legal rights -- for example, the ability to appeal the decision.

Having said all that, it brings up a related issue. I had another recent email exchange with a reader named Martina, who had a similar situation. I won't bore you now with the details of this case, either, but the bottom line is that I told Martina I thought she was eligible for Social Security spousal benefits and that she should file a claim. She went to her local Social Security office ready to fill out the paperwork. But the front desk clerk told her she wasn't eligible for benefits. Martina said that I had told her she was due some benefits and that she wanted to file a claim. According to Martina, the SSA agent then told her, "Who are you going to believe when it comes to Social Security, a newspaper columnist you never met or a real live Social Security representative?" She then told Martina to go home!

When Martina contacted me again, I was very upset. I told her to march back into that Social Security office and demand to speak to a supervisor. Again, the issue is not whether I am right or the SSA clerk is right. The overriding point here is that Martina has every right to file for any kind of Social Security benefit to which she thinks she is entitled. For a representative of the Social Security Administration to deny her that right is almost inexcusable.

To add to that thought, let me make one final point. "Back in the day," as they say, meaning back when I worked for the Social Security Administration, staffing levels were determined by the number of claims taken. In other words, the more claims an office took the more staff it was allocated. So we were actually encouraged to take a claim anytime we thought there was a chance someone was eligible. It was a win-win situation. The applicant's legal rights were protected. And the office got enough staff to handle its claims workload. If staffing policies at SSA haven't changed, the manager of the office that Martina visited needs to have a sit-down chat with his or her front desk representative.

Tom Margenau's weekly column, "Social Security and You," can be found at creators.com.

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