Here’s the key message of this column: If you have any doubt or doubt about your eligibility for Social Security benefits, insist on filing a claim for that benefit. You have every right to do that. Now let me explain this in more detail.
I hear from readers all the time who tell me that they talked to a Social Security Administration representative about their possible eligibility for a particular benefit and were either flatly told they were ineligible or otherwise discouraged from filing a claim. to serve. The informant is therefore sent away empty-handed, but often still has doubts about his possible entitlement to benefits. If you ever find yourself in that situation, let me repeat: insist on filing a claim. It is your legal right and it accomplishes two things. No. 1: You get a legal decision about your entitlement to benefits, not just the opinion of one Social Security employee. No. 2: You have appeal rights. In other words, if your claim is rejected and you are still not satisfied, you can ask to review your claim. You could even take it all the way to the Supreme Court if you wanted to. That last comment is a bit far-fetched (though feasible). However, the fundamental point I am making is very valid. If an SSA representative just says no and you walk away only to find out later that you were entitled to benefits, there’s generally nothing you can do about it but complain – and then file a claim without retroactive effect. But if you actually file a claim the first time and it’s rejected, and you can later prove your eligibility, you’ll get full benefits backdated to the date you filed the claim.
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As I said, I hear from many readers who are snubbed by an SSA representative. Of course, the informal denial is sometimes completely justified. For example, if you are only 60 years old and are trying to claim retirement benefits, and you are told that you must be at least 62 years old to qualify for such benefits, that is a correct answer and there is really nothing you can do.
But often the situation is more of a gray area, and if the SSA representative just turns you away and doesn’t give you a chance to apply for benefits, he or she isn’t doing it right. I’ll give some examples I’ve heard from readers in a moment. But first I want to make this point. When I started working for the SSA in the early 1970s, it was instilled in us almost from day one of our training that people had every right to apply for any benefit they felt they were entitled to and that it was our job to help them make such claims. In fact, the staffing of each Social Security field office was determined in part by the number of claims filed. So there was that extra incentive to help people file benefits applications: more applications meant more staff. It was that simple. But based on the number of complaints I get from readers who tell me they’re discouraged from filing for benefits, I’m guessing that the SSA’s hiring process no longer exists.
Here are some recent emails from readers with examples of what I’m talking about.
Q: Although my husband and I lived together for 20 years, we only got married two years ago. Unfortunately he passed away last month. I am 68 years old and receive a small social assistance benefit on my own account. When I went to the Social Security office to apply for widow’s benefits, the clerk told me we had to be married for at least 10 years, so she said I owed nothing. She helped me apply for the $255 death benefit, which is all I have. But lately some friends have been telling me that I should get a widow’s allowance. What should I do?
A: You should run right back to that Social Security office and insist on filing a claim for widow’s benefits. The rule of 10 years of marriage only applies to divorced spouses. You were married to your husband when he died, so that rule does not apply to you. The SSA representative you spoke to should have known that. If you get the same person again, ask to speak to a supervisor. But whatever you do, don’t leave the office until you’ve filed for Widow’s Benefits.
Q: Not so long ago you wrote a column explaining how you can get benefits as a divorced woman. Here’s my story. I am 65 and receive a very small pension because I have not worked much outside the home. My husband, on the other hand, had a very good job and earned a decent income. We were married for about 30 years. We divorced three years ago. Neither of us has remarried. He is also 65 years old and does not plan to apply for benefits before he turns 70. Your column said that I should be able to get benefits on his file even though he hasn’t filed yet.
So I called the Social Security 800 number and explained my situation. The phone rep told me I can’t get benefits from my ex until he files for Social Security himself. I read to her the part of your column that said I’m now entitled to benefits, and she said, “Who are you going to believe: an ignorant man writing a newspaper column, or me, an official government representative?” And then she hung up. So what do you suggest I do?
A: Well, I don’t think it would help to call her back and tell her that the “no clue” worked for the Social Security Administration for 32 years and wrote a nationally published Social Security column for about 25 years. I don’t think it would impress her.
But here’s what should impress her. Go to your local Social Security office or call the toll-free number (800-772-1213) and absolutely insist on filing a claim. The law clearly says that a divorced woman can claim benefits on an ex-husband’s file even if he is not yet receiving benefits. He must be old enough to qualify for Social Security, which basically means he must be 62 or older. But that’s it.
Once your benefits start and you get an official ‘award letter’ it would be great if you could somehow track down that phone rep who wouldn’t let you file a claim, read her the award letter and tell her that despite her shortcomings as a public servant, the “clueless guy” helped you kick start your benefits.
Anyway, I hope all my readers got the message of this column: When in doubt, ask to apply for benefits to protect your rights and get a legal decision.
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If you have a question about Social Security, Tom Margenau has a book with all the answers. It’s called ‘Social Security: Simple and Smart’. You can find the book at creators.com/books. Or look it up on Amazon or other bookstores. Visit www.creators.com to learn more about him, read past columns, and view articles by fellow Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists.