Under normal circumstances, my office walls don’t hear much profanity or coarse language. I suppose that day wasn’t normal.
My client was mad. “Devin, why is Social Security so &#%!@ complicated?”
Thankfully, he wasn’t mad at me but at a screwed up system that is often incomprehensible.
If you are one of the few who believe Social Security is easy to understand, read this excerpt from their rules.
“We consider that an initial determination is correct even if we send an incorrect notice.”
I didn’t have to cherry-pick to find a seemingly contradictory rule. The Social Security rule book is full of great examples of how not to write clearly. It’s not completely their fault though. Over the last 80 years the Social Security system has evolved into something completely different from where it started. As it has changed, new rules have been written. As new rules were written, new explanations of those rules were written. Now the system boast nearly 3,000 rules and two websites with more than 100,000 pages.
A huge rule book is not their only challenge. According to a Senate report, budget cuts have caused the agency to close 64 field offices just since 2010. The Social Security Administration has also shed some 11,000 workers and continues to cut back on in-person services. The goal? Send seniors and others to the 100,000 page website to conduct their business.
The timing is horrible! Baby-boomers are filing applications for retirement and disability benefits in record numbers. In 2013, more than 43 million people visited a Social Security field office.
The phone service centers are overwhelmed too. In 2011, only 3% of callers to the SSA’s 800 number received a busy signal. In 2014, it was nearly five times that number. For those fortunate enough to get through, the wait time was 17 minutes. That’s three times higher than it was in 2012!
The Social Security Administration is quickly becoming like many other federal agencies such as the IRS. They also have a published help line and some local offices, but have you ever tried calling them? They make it pretty clear. The burden is on you to either figure it out or hire someone to help you.
So if you’d tried to figure out Social Security on your own, and still aren’t sure about your options, there just aren’t many resources. With your IRS questions you can call your CPA, but with Social Security questions there are only three places that can even try to help you.
1) Social Security Administration
I would recommend that your first step should be to try and speak to a Technical Expert at your local Social Security office. After several phone calls and visits, you may give up in frustration. While your experience may differ, I’ve found the Social Security technicians to be a mixed bag. Some know very little about the program but some have forgotten more than I’ll ever know. You may hit the Social Security jackpot and get a seasoned, helpful technician that understands your problem.
Some attorneys can help you, but they generally don’t. Why? The attorneys that work with Social Security benefits generally help individuals with disability claims. Most disability attorneys will be paid a fee only if they win your disability case. This fee to the attorney is paid only out of your past due benefits. If no past due benefits are awarded, the attorney will not receive a fee.
This compensation model removes any incentive to help individuals with Social Security questions. However, it won’t hurt to ask! Some of the brightest minds in Social Security benefits are the veteran Social Security disability attorneys. You may ask them if they will take your case on an hourly basis instead of the contingency they are accustomed to.
3) Financial Planners
Financial planners are uniquely positioned to solve Social Security problems. Unfortunately, most don’t know how. They just simply do not understand the nuances of Social Security.
That is sad considering that 10,000 people per day are turning 65. Many of these people need guidance on fixing issues with Social Security. The good news is, there are good financial planners out there that “get” Social Security. You just have to know how to sort through the unqualified planners to find them.
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as inquiring as to their degree or designation. To my knowledge there are no legitimate classes or schools that can teach a financial planner everything they need to know to help clients with Social Security. For the most part, financial planners have to learn the Social Security rules on their own.
Since there are no real Social Security schools, the burden is on YOU to perform due diligence and sleuth your way to determining the planner’s expertise.
How are you supposed to do that? You need to ask lots of questions! But before you get to the heavy questions, here is the one question that will help you narrow the field.
How much does it cost?
If they offer this planning for no charge, don’t get close! It’s tempting I know. But if they offer Social Security consulting for “free” there will most likely be an investment pitch tied to it.
If the financial planner is able to pass the first test successfully, it’s time to find out how competent they are. You should ask them a starter question like, “What’s the best age to file?” If they give you some rule of thumb answer (e.g. 66 years old), they DON’T know Social Security beyond a surface level. Their answer to that question should be something like, “Every situation is different; your best age to file is based on a combination of personal factors.”
If they do OK with that question, here are a few more questions you can ask:
- How much will my benefit increase between age 62 and my full retirement age?
- What is a restricted application?
- What are the length of marriage rules?
- What is the earnings limitation?
- Can you explain provisional income?
These are VERY basic questions that any financial planner who dispenses Social Security advice will be comfortable and confident in answering immediately. There should be NO bumbling around or “let me check and call you back” answers on these simple questions.
If they do, keep looking!
The level of service and information from the Social Security Administration is not going to improve. Your filing strategy, and the amount of lifetime benefits you receive, is going to be dependent on how much effort you put into finding the answers or someone qualified to help you. Don’t let this complicated system get the best of you. If you ask around long enough, you’ll get the help you need.