Q: I want to thank you so much for helping me out. A few months ago, I gave you the particulars of our situation. I won't repeat all the numbers, but my husband's benefit is substantially more than my own. You said that based on the figures I gave you, I might be due extra spousal support. I went to my local Social Security office. The clerk seemed a little confused and initially told me that if I was due more, I would have been getting it already. When I persisted, he went and talked to someone else. They came back to the desk together, printed out something from the computer and told me to read it. It supposedly said I wasn't due anything. (I have a college degree, but I couldn't decipher it!) When I got back home, I sent you a follow-up email. You told me to return to the office and insist on filing a claim. Long story short: I did so and just today I got my first spousal check in the mail, including six months of back pay. I can't thank you enough for encouraging me to do this.
A: Someday, I might write an entire column simply repeating this mantra over and over again: When in doubt, insist on filing a claim! When in doubt, insist on filing a claim! When in doubt, insist on filing a claim!
Sadly, I hear from people like you way too often. I certainly don't want to imply that everyone working in a Social Security office is a clueless bureaucrat who doesn't know what he or she is doing. In fact, just the opposite is the case. I hear from readers all the time telling me about the wonderful and helpful service they received from someone at their local Social Security office.
Still, every barrel has a rotten apple or two. Or to be more specific, every Social Security office has a few new or maybe not fully trained employees. So that's the reason for my mantra. If you are in a Social Security office or talking to a representative on the phone about your possible eligibility for some kind of Social Security benefit, and the person you are talking to seems confused, or if you just feel uncomfortable with the answers you are getting, then always insist on filing a claim. And don't let the clerk talk you out of it. You have every right in the world to do so. And by doing that, you will get a formal, legal and written decision about your eligibility for benefits, as opposed to a Social Security clerk's verbal denial of your claim. Or for that matter, as opposed to my suggestion that you may or may not be due benefits.
Having said all that, let me flip over to the other side of that coin and address the most common complaint I get: "My husband is getting his Social Security and I am getting a much smaller amount. Shouldn't I be getting half of his?"
The answer to that question is usually no. A wife only gets her benefit supplemented up to half of what her husband is getting IF she waited until her full retirement age to apply for benefits. And, her spousal benefit is based on her husband's full retirement age rate, not his enhanced rate if he waited until some later point, like age 70, to file for benefits.
Most women sign up for Social Security before their full retirement age. Many of them do so at age 62. If you took benefits at 62, your spousal rate is more like one-third, not one-half.
I'm pointing this out because I don't want half the women reading this column marching into their local Social Security office and saying: "There's a guy who writes a Social Security column in our newspaper who says I should insist on filing a claim for extra spousal benefits."
You should be able to get out your calculator and do the math to find out if you are due any extra spousal benefits. If you're not sure, one of those many excellent and well-trained Social Security staffers I mentioned earlier should be able to go over the numbers with you. Only employ my mantra if you think you are due benefits and you get one of those bad apples.
And speaking of bad apples, read the next question and you'll see that even a Social Security columnist can occasionally hand out advice that's a bit "wormy!"
Q: I love reading your column. I have learned so much over the years. And one of the best things you've taught me is how to look up information for myself — especially at the Social Security Administration website. And by doing that, I've discovered that you may have given someone misinformation. The situation involved a woman who had a split marriage. She married a guy, divorced him, and then later remarried the same guy. The first marriage didn't last 10 years. The second marriage lasted only 6 months, and then her husband died. You told her that she wasn't due any widow's benefits because the rules say a marriage must last at least 9 months before a woman can be legally considered a widow for Social Security purposes. I looked up that rule, and you are right. But that rule includes some exceptions. And one of them says that the 9 month rule can be waived if: "At the time of your marriage the (husband) was reasonably expected to live for 9 months, and you had been previously married to the (husband) for at least 9 months."
A: Doggone it, you are right! I read about the 9-month rule in the Social Security guidebook, but I missed the exceptions. Shame on me!
But I wasn't alone in screwing up. If you will recall, the woman with the split marriages told me that she was turned down for widow's benefits at her local Social Security office and she asked me if I thought it was right. And quoting that 9-month rule, I told her that she was correctly denied benefits.
But the reason I am including your email in today's column is because I ended my advice to this woman by telling he to take further action.
This column was all about encouraging people to insist on filing a claim for benefits if they have any questions about their possible eligibility. But another version of that advice is to take things one step further — to file an appeal if a claim is denied and you think the decision is wrong. And that's what I told the split-marriage woman to do. Assuming she did so, the appeals judge would have caught the exception you cited and granted her widow's benefits.
If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at [email protected] 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.