There Oughta Be a Law!

By Tom Margenau
Tom Margenau
Tom Margenau
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.
June 4, 2021 Updated: June 4, 2021

Readers are always asking me to explain various Social Security rules and regulations. But sometimes they want more. They want to see something official—something in black and white. In other words, they want me to give them a legal reference for whatever rules I am explaining to them.

I sort of know where they are coming from. Frequently, they have heard one thing from a friend or from a supposed trusted source, like maybe a financial adviser or even a Social Security representative. And then they read something different from me. I understand their confusion.

So, why should they trust me? Well, I’ve been doing this Social Security stuff for almost 50 years now. And all the programs, rules, and regulations are just burned into my brain. I will occasionally need to check something out in the Social Security Administration’s Program Operations Manual System, or POMS, which is the primary resource guide for SSA employees. POMS takes all of the Social Security laws and turns them into practical instructions for carrying out those laws. But frankly, I haven’t looked at the actual laws for many years now.

Still, I understand that more than a few people would like to see something in writing. Because of the high volume of emails I get, I simply don’t have the time to look everything up. But if you want to do your own research, I have some bits of advice.

First, I strongly recommend you start out looking in the Social Security Handbook. The handbook is a much shorter version of the POMS. If you printed out the entire POMS, it would fill about 20 three-ring binders. (I know this for a fact because when I worked for the SSA before an electronic version of POMS came along, I had those 20 binders in a bookshelf behind my desk.)

Anyway, the Social Security Handbook is only about 700 pages and fills just one book on my desk. You can find it at SocialSecurity.gov. Just type “Social Security Handbook” in the search box. Or if you’re an old-fashioned guy like me, you can get a hard copy of the book at any bookseller like Amazon.

And since I mentioned Amazon, allow me to shamelessly plug my book. It’s called “Social Security: Simple and Smart.” It’s a collection of fact sheets I have written for my readers over the years. These fact sheets explain almost every facet of the Social Security program. It’s much shorter and simpler than the Social Security Handbook, and it is way easier to understand than the POMS. And it is so much more convenient to find what you are looking for in my book rather than trying to wade through all the Social Security laws.

Having plugged my book, I totally understand that it’s not good enough for some people. They want to see the actual rules and regulations. And if you are not satisfied with the Social Security Handbook, you are going to have to delve into the thousands and thousands of pages of POMS.

You can find POMS online at SocialSecurity.gov. Near the top of the homepage, open up the “Menu” tab, and then scroll down to the bottom and you will see a link called “Program Rules.” Click on that. You will see four links. You will want to open the link labeled “Employee Operating Instructions.” Then click on “Program Operations Manual System (POMS).” Once there, you will see the table of contents, which is divided into topics such as “Retirement and Survivors Insurance,” “Disability Insurance,” “Health Insurance,” and so on.

And then all I can say is, “Good luck!” I’ve been using POMS for almost half a century now, and to be honest, I still have trouble finding exactly what I am looking for.

And for those of you who aren’t satisfied with my book, the Social Security Handbook, or POMS, and you insist on seeing the actual law, well, then I wish you even more luck. In my 50 years of working on Social Security issues, I think I’ve tried to find an actual law reference only once or twice. But if you really want to, you can find the laws by following the same links I mentioned above for POMS. Once you click on “Program Rules,” you will find tabs for “The Law,” “The Regulations,” and “The Rulings.”

I am not a lawyer, and I certainly am no expert on these matters, but I think in a nutshell, the “Law” is the law. The “Regulations” are subsets of the law. And the “Rulings” are subsets of the regulations.

Having given you all these instructions for wading through the SSA website to find various laws and rules and regulations, I’ve found that a simple Google search can work just as well. And here is a big hint for doing that: Always start out your search with the words “Social Security.”

For example, say you wanted information on the 10-year duration of marriage rule that applies to a divorced husband or wife trying to get benefits on an ex-spouse’s Social Security record. When you do the Google search, don’t just type in “10-year marriage rule.” Make sure you type in “Social Security 10-year marriage rule.” Lots of helpful links will pop up—some of them leading to a POMS reference or maybe even the law.

I’ve got just a little space left, and I’m going to completely shift gears and pass along something a reader recently shared with me. Here is what he said.

“In your recent column on rules about Social Security checks, you mention how beneficiaries get checks on a Wednesday (second, third, or fourth) depending on their birthday, with the exception of some old-timers who still get their checks on the third of the month.

“You left out an exception: If a beneficiary has someone else collecting checks based on the primary’s Social Security number, the primary beneficiary’s pay date changes to the third of every month. Being born on March 16, 1949, I got my check on the third Wednesday until my ex-wife reached the age to collect based on my Social Security account. Then I began receiving checks on the third of each month and do so to this date. The SSA sent me a letter explaining the change in the pay date and listed reasons (there were a couple of others, but I don’t recall what they were), including the one that affected me.”

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 thomas.margenau@comcast.net

Tom Margenau
Tom Margenau
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.