Let me ask a question. If your furnace stopped working on the coldest day of the year, would you send an email to a guy who writes a newspaper column about heating and air conditioning issues? Or would you immediately call a local heating contractor and get someone out as soon as possible to fix your furnace?
Obviously, you would do the latter.
So maybe you can see why I’m always puzzled when people contact me with pressing Social Security concerns instead of going directly to the Social Security Administration. For example, there was this email in today’s inbox:
“I didn’t get my Social Security check this month. Can you help?” Or this one. “I lost my Social Security card. What should I do?”
I mean, isn’t the answer rather obvious? You should contact the SSA. Their hotline number is 800-772-1213. Their website is SocialSecurity.gov.
Sometimes, it’s not an urgent Social Security matter that people write to me about. But there is some problem (or perceived problem) with their Social Security benefits, and they somehow expect me to fix it. For example, someone recently wrote to tell me she thought she was due more money from Social Security. She asked me to check her records and let her know. Someone else told me he got a letter from the SSA telling him he was overpaid and he wanted me to intervene for him. There is simply nothing I can do to help these people other than to tell them to contact someone at the SSA.
I’m a retired SSA employee sitting alone in my basement writing a column and answering general questions that people have about Social Security. I don’t have any kind of access to SSA records or files. And I’ve been retired for 15 years now, so all the people I used to know at the SSA are also retired. I no longer have any kind of “in” with the agency.
I just can’t call up anyone at the SSA and say, “Fix this” or, “Check into this for me.” I’m sorry.
As I said, I’m just an old goat sitting in my basement with an old computer. On the other hand, the SSA has 62,000 employees and 1,300 field offices and a national 800 number and a really superduper website. I’d say you have a 62,000-to-1 better chance of getting your Social Security issue resolved by dealing directly with the SSA.
Having said all of that, there are still hundreds and hundreds of Social Security-related questions I can answer for people—as long as they are of a general nature and don’t involve the need to check SSA records. Here are some examples.
Q: I am filing for Social Security online. I turn 66 on Dec. 20. And that’s when I want my benefits to start. So, should I indicate Dec. 20 as my start date? Or should I put Jan. 28 because I know my first check will come on the fourth Wednesday in January?
A: First of all, don’t worry about a starting day. Social Security only works on a monthly schedule. In other words, you are due benefits for the entire month of December, even though you don’t turn 66 until the 20th. Also, don’t concern yourself with when your first benefit will actually show up in your bank account. Make believe the question is asking you this: “Which month do you want to be your first eligibility month for Social Security benefits?” And in your case, that is December. So, on the application form, you will indicate December as your starting month.
Q: My widowed mother recently died. We didn’t get the $255 death benefit. We did get it (actually, Mom got it) 10 years ago when our dad died. So, why don’t we get it for Mom?
A: The law says that miserly little one-time death benefit can only be paid to a surviving spouse. When your dad died, your mom was the surviving spouse, so she got the $255. But now when your mom died, there is no surviving spouse, so no death benefit. Sorry.
Q: I turn 67 in January 2021. That’s when I want to start my Social Security. I delayed benefits for a year beyond my full retirement age so that I will get the 8 percent increase in my Social Security checks. I know Social Security checks come a month behind, and I want to make sure I don’t mess things up and pick the wrong date and mess up that 8 percent bonus. So, do I put down December as my starting date, knowing that I will get my first check in January? Or do I pick January? Or do I choose February as my start date because I know the January check comes in February? I’m so confused and worried!
A: You are WAY overthinking and overworrying about this. As I’ve said earlier in this column, don’t concern yourself with the month you actually get your Social Security check. You said you want your benefits to start when you are 67. Which month do you turn 67? January. So, you should indicate January as your starting month. It’s that simple.
Also, don’t fret about getting exactly the 8 percent increase. The so-called delayed retirement credit is actually two-thirds of 1 percent for each month you delay benefits after your full retirement age. If you start your benefits in January at age 67, that comes out to an 8 percent increase. But if you inadvertently choose February as your starting month, you’d get an 8.6 percent increase. If you picked December, you’d get a 7.4 percent increase. In other words, you don’t suffer any terrible consequences if you happen to pick a month other than January to start your Social Security checks.
Q: I’m about to turn 66. I have a high-paying job and plan to continue working. But I also am a widow. I called Social Security, and they told me I could file for widows benefits now and, at 70, switch to higher benefits on my own record. This seems too good to be true. Is it?
A: It’s a good deal. And it is true. The law normally says you can’t file for spousal benefits and save your own until a later date. But that rule doesn’t apply to widows. You will get a 100 percent widows benefit at 66. Then, at 70, you will switch to 132 percent of your own retirement benefit. Gosh, a high-paying job and a bonus in your Social Security check. Sounds like you’ll be floating in dough! So, will you marry me? (But I have to clear that with my wife first!)
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. If you have a Social Security question, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.