I frequently hear from readers who tell me that they contacted the Social Security Administration with the intention of filing for Social Security benefits of one kind or another and then were either told they weren’t eligible for any benefits or were just otherwise talked out of filing.
Of course, sometimes that is good advice. For example, if you are 62 years old and still working full time and making $75,000 per year, and you call the SSA to file for retirement benefits, the rep would be correct in telling you that you simply aren’t eligible for benefits until you retire or reach your full retirement age, whichever comes first.
Or if you are a 58-year-old woman whose husband has died and you call the SSA to file for widows benefits, they should tell you that you must be at least 60 years old before you can get such benefits.
But sometimes, the circumstances are not so cut and dried. And because of that, here is the message of today’s column: If you think you are possibly eligible for Social Security benefits, you have every right to file for whatever benefits you think you are due. So, whenever there is any doubt about your eligibility, always demand to file a claim.
By doing so, you accomplish two things. One, you will get a legal decision about your eligibility for benefits, and not just one Social Security clerk’s opinion. (Or, for that matter, one Social Security columnist’s opinion.) And two, you will have appeal rights. In other words, if your claim is denied and you still aren’t 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 a Social Security representative just says “no” and you walk away and 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’s denied and you later are able to prove your eligibility, you will get full retroactive benefits to the date you filed the claim.
So, that’s the overall message to everyone reading this column: Always demand to file a claim for benefits if you think you might possibly be due them—no matter what a Social Security agent tells you. And especially do so if you get different answers from different SSA representatives. (Sadly, I hear the latter complaint far too often from far too many of my readers.)
Now, here are some questions from readers that illustrate what I am talking about.
Q: I am 68 years old and get a small Social Security retirement check. My first husband and I were married for 30 years. But it was an abusive relationship, and I divorced him about five years ago. Three years ago, I married a wonderful man. But sadly, he died last month. When I called the Social Security office to file for widows 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 widows benefits. What should I do?
A: Unless I am missing some of the facts, you were given bum advice by the Social Security rep. The 10-year duration of marriage rule applies only to divorced spouses. So, assuming your second husband’s benefit rate was more than you are getting on your own, it sure sounds to me like you are due widows benefits. You should call the SSA back and immediately file a claim.
Q: I am 62 years old. I called Social Security’s 800 number and told them I wanted to file for my Social Security benefits. I run my own business, but I plan to turn it over to my wife (at least on paper) and pay myself a salary of $18,000 per year, so I will be under the Social Security earnings limit and thus eligible for my monthly checks. The telephone rep I talked to told me I was eligible for benefits, and she set me up for a phone interview with someone at my local Social Security office. But when the local office representative called me, he said I was not eligible for benefits and terminated the interview. Do I have any recourse?
A: Well, you are treading a fine Social Security eligibility line. In the past, the rules were pretty stringent. You would not have been able to simply turn the business over to your wife on paper and pay yourself a minimal salary and then expect to collect Social Security retirement benefits. But recently, the SSA has eased up on these rules, and now you may be eligible. Again, the only way you will find out for sure is to file a claim.
Q: I am 68 years old. I have yet to sign up for Social Security. My wife just turned 62, and she recently filed for her own benefits. Friends told me I can employ the “file and suspend” strategy and collect benefits on my wife’s account and, at 70, switch to my own benefits. But when I called Social Security’s 800 number, the agent told me that I could no longer file and suspend. But in a recent column, you said I could (if I read it right). So, what should I do?
A: You misread my column and confused the SSA rep because you are using the wrong term. You do not want to file and suspend. That maximizing strategy has been eliminated. (So, I won’t bother explaining what it means.) What you want to do is “file and restrict.” That strategy is still available to anyone who was born before Jan. 2, 1954. It means you can file for spousal benefits on your wife’s record and then, at 70, switch to 132 percent of your own benefit. So, call the SSA back and insist on filing a claim. And just to be sure, here is the precise phrasing you should use. Tell them you want to file a Social Security claim, but say, “I want to restrict that claim to spousal benefits on my wife’s record so I can switch to my own retirement benefits at 70.”
Tom Margenau worked for 32 years in a variety of positions for the Social Security Administration before retiring in 2005. He has served as the director of SSA’s public information office, the chief editor of more than 100 SSA publications, a deputy press officer and spokesman, and a speechwriter for the commissioner of Social Security. For 12 years, he also wrote Social Security columns for local newspapers, and recently published the book “Social Security: Simple and Smart.” If you have a Social Security question, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org