What to Do When the SSA Steers You Wrong

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.
September 11, 2021 Updated: September 11, 2021

These are the columns I hate to write. Columns that are critical of some of my former colleagues at the Social Security Administration. But doggone it. Almost every day, I hear from readers who have been misled by an SSA representative.

I know we’re all human and we all can make mistakes. And giving out bum advice is one thing. But giving out misinformation that leads to someone losing out on benefits that they’re due is an entirely different matter.

I’ve speculated before what might be going on. My best guess is that SSA just doesn’t train its employees the way it did when I worked for the agency many years ago. I explained how I went through an intensive three-month training class with real experienced senior SSA officials as mentors before I could even think about answering people’s Social Security questions. And after that initial class, we almost always had some kind of refresher training before each workday began. Sadly, today’s SSA training is much less structured. And so much of the training is done by computers, not by human beings.

Anyway, there’s really nothing that you, as a consumer of SSA services, can do about that. But what you can do is follow the mantra I’ve preached over and over again in this column: Always insist on filing a claim for benefits. If you think you’re due benefits but an SSA rep says no, you have every right to still file a claim. That way, you’ll get a formal and legal decision about your eligibility, and not just some SSA rep’s opinion on the matter. Here are some examples of what I’m talking about.

Q: My 78-year-old husband recently died. He waited until 70 to file for benefits. He was getting $3,555 per month. I took benefits at 66. I am getting $2,810 per month. I called SSA to ask about widow’s benefits. The agent told me I am only due his age 66 rate, which he said was $2,740. And because my own retirement check is more, he said I was due no widow’s benefits. I would like your take on this.

A: Well, this isn’t my “take.” This is the law. And the law says you are due his age 70 benefit rate in the form of widow’s benefits. In other words, you will keep getting your $2,810 retirement benefit. And then you will get an additional $745 in widow’s benefits to take you up to your husband’s $3,555 level.

The SSA rep you talked to might have been confused because the spousal rate payable to a wife (whose husband is still alive) is based on his full retirement age rate. But the rate payable to a widow is based on the deceased husband’s actual benefit, including any “delayed retirement credits” earned for waiting until age 70 to file (as your husband did).

So call SSA back immediately and insist on filing a claim for widow’s benefits.

Q: I was a stay-at-home mom most of my life. I haven’t worked enough to earn my own Social Security. I was married for 35 years to a highly paid lawyer in our town. We’ve been divorced for about three years. Neither of us has remarried. We are both 62 years old. Based on something you wrote in a past column, I figured I could start getting spousal benefits now on his record even though my ex-husband plans to wait until he is 70 to file for his Social Security. I called my local Social Security office and talked to a really kind person. She explained to me as politely as possible that the law said I cannot get benefits on his record until he is claiming benefits himself. Was this good information?

A: No, it was bad information. The agent you talked to might have been really kind. But she wasn’t really well-trained. While it’s true that a woman who is still married to her husband can’t get benefits on his account until he signs up for Social Security himself, it is conversely true that a divorced woman can claim spousal benefits even if her ex hasn’t yet applied for Social Security. He has to be old enough to get benefits, meaning he has to be at least 62 years old. But he doesn’t need to be getting checks himself. So you need to reconnect with SSA and insist on filing a claim.

A bit of a follow-up. In this case, the woman did just that. But she was still given a little grief. I think the “kind person” used these words: “Who are you going to trust? A trained SSA representative? Or some old guy who writes a newspaper column?”

Anyway, I told her to go back to the agent and tell her to look in SSA’s instruction manual using the term: “independently entitled divorce spouse.” That’s what the rulebook calls a divorced woman who can collect benefits from her ex’s Social Security record independent of his entitlement to benefits.

Q: I just reached my full retirement age of 66 and two months. I’m still working full time. I called SSA to file for widow’s benefits. (My husband died several years ago.) I wanted to take those benefits now, and then at 70, switch to my own Social Security with the bonus for delayed retirement. But the agent I talked to, a really nice young man, said this special loophole in the law was no longer available to me. Is this true?

A: Well, just like the last questioner, you got a “nice young man,” but sadly, not a fully trained young man. He is mixing an apple and an orange.

The loophole he referred to affected people getting Social Security retirement benefits. If they turned 66 before Jan. 2, 2020, they could claim dependent benefits on a spouse’s record and save their own retirement benefits until age 70. So unless you were born before Jan. 2, 1954, that loophole is indeed closed.

But a similar loophole has always been available to widows, and it remains available to them still today. So call Social Security back and tell them you want to file for widow’s benefits now, and at 70, you plan to switch to your own augmented retirement benefits.

Let me repeat my mantra: Always insist on filing a claim for benefits—if you think you possibly might be due something.

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.