Let’s say you own a Honda Civic and you’ve got a problem with it. Maybe it leaks oil, or maybe it has trouble starting. Would you go to Honda’s headquarters in Minato City, Japan, to get it fixed? Of course not. You’d go to your local Honda dealer.
Or maybe you’ve got a Maytag washing machine that’s on the fritz. Would you contact Maytag’s headquarters in Benton Harbor, Michigan, for repairs? No, you wouldn’t. You would find a local appliance repair shop and have them look at it.
So, I’m always surprised when people with a Social Security question or problem think that they should contact Social Security Administration headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, for help. Why in the world do that when you’ve got a local Social Security office probably just a few miles down the road? (There are about 1,200 Social Security offices around the country.)
A few months ago, I wrote about people who travel all the way to the SSA’s headquarters in the Baltimore suburb of Woodlawn because they want to take their Social Security issue “all the way to the top” and then end up talking to a representative from the nearby Randallstown, Maryland, Social Security office who is out-stationed there just for instances like these.
I was reminded of all this when I got an email this week from a woman who was asking a fairly simple question. She is 68 and is getting about $2,000 per month in her own retirement benefit. Her 74-year-old husband gets about $3,000. She was asking if she would get widow’s benefits on his record if he should die first.
And here was my answer: “Yes, you can switch to higher widow’s benefits if he dies first. Because you are over your full retirement age, you’ll be bumped up to what he was getting at the time of death.”
After getting my answer, she thanked me and told me it was so much clearer than the reply she got from the SSA headquarters in Baltimore. It turns out she had previously sent them the same question. And she shared the reply she got. Here it is.
“Thank you for contacting the Social Security Administration.
We apologize for the delay in answering your inquiry. We regret any inconvenience this may have caused.
When a claimant starts receiving Social Security retirement or disability benefits, other family members also may be eligible for payments.
They include the following:
–A spouse, if they are age 62 or older;
–A spouse, at any age, if they are caring for the worker’s child who is disabled or is younger than age 16;
–The worker’s biological child, adopted child, or, in some cases, a stepchild or grandchild.
When a child is adopted after the natural parent’s death, survivors’ benefits can be paid to the child on the natural parent’s Social Security record. The adoption of a child already entitled to survivor’s benefits does not terminate the child’s benefits. However, a child adopted by someone else during the lifetime of the natural parent can receive benefits on the natural parent’s record only if the child was either living with or receiving support from the natural parent at the time the parent died.
Payment of benefits on the natural parent’s Social Security record to a child who was adopted by someone else during the natural parent’s lifetime is consistent with the purpose of Social Security benefits — to replace support lost by a child when the worker dies. The requirement that the child must have been dependent upon the worker is intended to assure that the child lost a source of support when the worker died.
To receive benefits, the child must meet the following criteria:
— be unmarried; and
— be under age 18; or
— be 18-19 years old and a full-time student (no higher than grade 12); or
— be 18 or older and disabled from a disability that started before age 22. (The child’s disability also must meet the definition of disability for adults.)”
This response from the SSA headquarters people went on and on for another couple paragraphs. I just can’t squeeze it all in the space of this column. And guess what? It never answered her question!
I’m not going to defend my former colleagues at the SSA. But I am going to explain what happens when you “go to the top” (in this case, the SSA headquarters) to get an answer to a simple question. I know what happens because I used to work in an office in the same department as the folks who handle these questions.
SSA’s headquarters probably get thousands of routine inquiries each day. And there is a staff of about a hundred people whose job it is to answer these letters and emails. When I worked there, it was called the Office of Public Inquiries.
Regular readers of this column know that I’ve pointed out many times that I’m essentially asked the same questions over and over again. Well, guess what? The same happens with OPI. So rather than “reinvent the wheel” by coming up with new answers each time to the same old questions, they have prepared “canned” responses for the hundreds of different questions they might get.
So, for example, when this lady’s email came in, someone looked at it and said something like, “We need to reply with Paragraph 212 that explains which dependents can get benefits and then Paragraph 449 that explains this and Paragraph 652 that explains that.” Then someone puts together a response that includes those canned paragraphs and the reply goes out.
But it sounds like in this lady’s case, they forgot to add the paragraph that explains widow’s benefits. That’s just another example of why you shouldn’t “go to the top” to get your Social Security questions answered or your Social Security issues resolved. Instead, for help, rely on your local Social Security office, the SSA’s toll free number (800-772-1213) or the agency’s website at www.socialsecurity.gov. Or rely on your friendly Social Security columnist. And for the most comprehensive help, buy his books listed below!
If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has two books with all the answers. One is called “Social Security — Simple and Smart: 10 Easy-to-Understand Fact Sheets That Will Answer All Your Questions About Social Security.” The other is “Social Security: 100 Myths and 100 Facts.” You can find the books at Amazon.com or other book outlets. 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.
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