Should You Apply for Social Security Disability or Retirement Benefits?

the choice of filing for ssdi can be difficult

If you’re retiring early for health reasons, do you know what benefit to file for when you claim Social Security?

Most people don’t, and simply assume they just need to file for retirement benefits. But if you could receive disability benefits instead, choosing to file normally could cause you to miss out on a lot of money.

Let me tell you this story to explain how.

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Will The Social Security Administration Close Their Field Offices?

The Social Security Administration will not be the same in 10 years. They have a plan that is rapidly unfolding and some of this is detailed in their “Vision 2025” strategic plan.

You might have heard a little about this already. The Administration has a webpage devoted to it — but to really get into the meat of what the Social Security Administration plans to do next, you have to dive into the supporting studies.

Let’s take a look together in this article. I’ll help you cover the entire spectrum of what the Social Security Administration (or SSA) has in the works… and what I see as the biggest challenge to getting this off the ground.

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How to (Correctly) Stop Social Security Benefits

how to stop your social security benefit

Most of us spend a lot of time figuring out how to maximize the benefits we can receive from Social Security. After all, when we’re talking about retirement, every extra income stream and every dollar makes a difference.

So it might sound strange at first to talk about how to stop your Social Security benefits from coming in. But in some situations, there are a number of reasons why stopping your Social Security benefit is the right thing to do.

There’s a right way to do this, and a wrong way — and you need to know the difference so you can understand when it makes sense to turn off Social Security benefits, and how to do it correctly so that action doesn’t come back to bite you down the road.

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4 Big Medicare Mistakes You Might Be Making (and How to Avoid Them)

There are a few mistakes you can make with your Medicare benefits that seem small, but actually carry some big, nasty consequences.

I’m talking about the kind of consequences that can cost you thousands of dollars. That’s a lot of money that you could have on the line — and the confusing Medicare system doesn’t make it any easier to avoid big mistakes.

Medicare is full of confusing language, plans that seem awfully similar, a lot of different deadlines, and more than a few hidden costs that can take you (and your budget) by surprise.

I’ve seen more than a few people make these specific Medicare mistakes, and I want to help you avoid becoming just another one of many. Here’s what I see most often — and how you can avoid making these same errors.

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How YOU Can Change the Windfall Elimination Provision and Government Pension Offset

WEP and GPO repeal may never happen in Washington.

Are you an educator or public servant who currently works — and will eventually be subject to Social Security’s Windfall Elimination Provision or the Government Pension Offset? Tired of waiting on your elected officials to keep their promises and repeal the WEP and GPO that punish workers like you?

If so, I have some good news: you have the power to get these rules changed. You just need to know what actions to take, and that’s what I want to share with you in this article.

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How To Determine the Right Age to Collect Social Security

there is a right age to collect social security

It’s one of the most popular questions asked about claiming benefits for your retirement: What’s the right age to collect Social Security? Should you file early — or late?

This is not an easy decision to make, or one to take lightly.  No matter what your financial situation, you’ve likely wondered about the best strategy for you.

So today, take a look at the 10 factors you need to consider when you’re thinking about filing for your benefits.

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Do Felons Have a Right to Social Security?

It’s no secret that Social Security is not the easiest system to understand. A maze of complex and complicated rules make it very hard to understand what is and isn’t allowed, and there are a number of hoops everyone has to jump through to ensure they get their benefits in the right amount.

Another not-so-secret fact about the system? It’s plagued with problems, the biggest of which may be the fact that the Social Security Administration’s trust funds will run out of money around 2035 unless someone finds a fix — and quick.

Considering this, it’s little wonder that people are quick to take issue with anything about Social Security that seems to indicate that someone is getting more benefits than they should. After all, anyone receiving income from Social Security is pulling from a very finite pool of resources.

The more money that goes to people who shouldn’t be receiving it means less for people who truly need it.

So when it comes to people with felony convictions who receive Social Security checks, it’s little wonder people get very fired up about this topic. But there’s also a lot of misinformation floating around about this topic, so let’s set the record straight about whether felons have a right to Social Security or not.

A Felony Conviction Does Not Automatically Disqualify Someone for Social Security

Not long ago, someone commented that the Social Security system wouldn’t be in such trouble if we didn’t have prisons full of people collecting disability and retirement benefits.

While I have a lot of content, in the form of both blog posts and videos on my YouTube channel, dedicated to breaking down and explaining the complex rules around Social Security, that comment made me realize that I’ve never gone into detail on whether or not someone with a felony conviction can receive benefits.

Here’s how this works: a felony conviction alone does not turn off your Social Security benefits. But an individual cannot receive benefits while imprisoned for more than 30 days for that conviction.

That detail is important! It means that if someone is arrested for a crime, and spends 90 days in county jail waiting on their trial, their benefits will continue. In order for the benefits to be suspended, they must be convicted and imprisoned for more than 30 days.

The Rules Around Medicare and Other Benefits for Imprisoned Individuals

While we’re clearing up the misinformation around whether or not convicted felons serving their sentences for their crimes are eligible for benefits, let’s look at a few other important points that most people don’t have the facts on.

If someone is on Medicare when they go to prison, their Social Security benefits will stop. The automated payments to Medicare Part B stop, as well — but those premiums are still due and payable.

If an individual does not pay their Part B premiums, then their Medicare Part B coverage will discontinue. That person would then have to reapply for benefits during an open enrollment period. The result for that person would most likely be a much higher Part B premium.

The other interesting note is with regards to spousal and childrens’ benefits. The rules are fairly clear that if a spouse or child is receiving benefits from the work of an individual who is incarcerated, that benefit will continue.

Keep in mind that before a spouse or child can receive a benefit from another work record, the individual who owns that record has to file first. If someone is in prison when they first become eligible to file, then they can’t actually take that action — and if they can’t file, then their spouses and children can’t receive their benefit.

What’s Your Take on This Topic?

It’s easy to hear rumors like the one that a bunch of felons are sitting around collecting Social Security, and feel worried or concerned over whether that’s completely true. After all, Social Security is in some degree of trouble because funds will run out unless new rules or regulations go into effect soon.

But I ask that you really think this one through. Some people believe that if an individual is being provided housing and food by the government at taxpayer expense, they shouldn’t be able to get any kind of Social Security benefit on top of that.

But you can consider this from another perspective, too. Some people say that if a prisoner worked for their entire life and contributed to the system, the government shouldn’t be able to seize any portion of that earned benefit.

Questions?
If you still have questions, you could leave a comment below, but what may be an even greater help is to join my FREE Facebook members group. It’s very active and has some really smart people who love to answer any questions you may have about Social Security. From time to time I’ll even drop in to add my thoughts, too. Also…if you haven’t already, you should join the 100,000+ subscribers on my YouTube channel!

Why Means Testing Social Security May Be The Most Obvious Fix

means testing social security

Worries and rumors and complaints about a broken system on the verge of collapsing have been the norm when it comes to talking about Social Security since as far back as the 1980s — and that shows no signs of slowing down today.

With current projections showing the Administration’s trust funds run out in 2035, it makes sense that people are still concerned and clamoring for a solution. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just fix Social Security once and for all?

It sure would be — and it might be easier than most people currently think. In fact, I believe there is a solution to fix Social Security. Not only would it repair a broken system, but it wouldn’t even require extensive legislation and the infrastructure is already in place to start administering this today.

Sound too good to be true? Keep reading and I’ll give you all the details on the most obvious fix for Social Security’s current woes.

We CAN Avoiding Cutting Social Security Benefits

It’s no secret that Social Security is facing financial challenges ahead. Again, we know that within the next 15 or so years, there will not be enough money coming in to pay out benefits.

Something has to change, and fast, or we can expect benefits to be cut by around 25% across the board. Maybe that’s not a big deal for some people… but for many others, losing a full quarter of your benefit payment could be devastating.

This would be a good place to pause before I share my solution, and give a quick warning to politicians who would like to stay in office:

There are nearly 50 million individuals in the United States over the age of 65. 25 million households get half of their family income from Social Security. More than 12 million get 90% of their income from Social Security.

That’s a lot of people — and this many people can easily swing election outcomes one way or another. Since 1900, the average popular vote difference between the winner and loser of a presidential election has been 5.8 million votes.

Clearly, there are more than enough voters here — voters who have the majority of their income at stake — to easily swing an election to the side of someone who can fix this system before benefit cuts happen.

My idea would not be difficult for politicians or the government to implement, because the systems are already in place to put this plan into action. So what is this great fix?

It’s very simple: it’s an extension of the Social Security earnings limit to all ages.

Here’s how it would work.

Extending the Social Security Earnings Limit to All Ages Could Fix the System

Under the current rules, if you’re younger than the full retirement age then you can only make a certain amount of income before your benefits are withheld. If you make over a certain amount in income, you don’t get benefits at all.

But once you reach full retirement age, there is no limit on the amount of earnings you can have outside of your Social Security benefit.

My fix would simply extend this current rule around the earnings limit to apply that limit to all ages. If your earnings exceed a certain amount — which would mean you don’t actually need Social Security in order to get by or afford your lifestyle — you would not be eligible to receive benefits.

This would actually realign the system with the original guidelines. It would also free up funds to go to those who truly rely on their Social Security benefits to survive in retirement and have little or no other sources of income to use.

Shouldn’t Social Security Go to Those Who Need It Most?

When Social Security first began, the earnings limit applied to all ages. In 1950, the earnings limit was eliminated at age 75.

In 1954, this was changed to age 72. Another change happened in 1983 when the age was dropped to 70. Finally, in 2000, the rules changed for a final time to make the earnings limit drop off at your full retirement age.

I’m certainly not the first to suggest this specific fix to Social Security — although my simplified method of extending the earnings limit may be new.

On the campaign trail in 2015, now-President Donald Trump said, “I would be willing to say I will not get Social Security. But the fact is that there are people that truly don’t need it, and there are many people that do need it very, very badly.”

In the same campaign season, then-Governor Chris Christie said, “We need to save this program for people who have paid into the system and need it. This government doesn’t need more money to make Social Security solvent. We need to be not paying benefits to people who don’t really need it.”

A Word on Fixing Social Security with Means Testing

Although a means test has been suggested before, I haven’t seen the research on the impact of such a change.  One of my big questions about this is, where would the earnings limit be set under this solution?

Ultimately, there is an earnings amount where cutting benefits to individuals above the line would completely fix the system. Is that number $15,000 in income? $25,000? Who knows?

To my knowledge this topic hasn’t been researched enough to have a complete answer, which is where the means test seems most problematic to me. It’s a big puzzle piece that’s missing and really needs to be known before this proposal can get serious.

I know some people will say that even my proposed solution of making the earnings limit something that applies to everyone regardless of age is a form of means testing — and that it unfairly punishes success.

As much as I agree with that, the entire Social Security system is already built on means testing. My fix doesn’t present a huge change due to the progressive Social Security benefits formula.

Under that formula, lower-earning individuals receive a benefit that is a higher replacement of pre-retirement earnings than higher earning individuals. And once benefits begin to be paid, lower earning individuals usually don’t have to pay any taxes while those with higher incomes have to give some of it back through taxes.

Adding a “means test” like the earnings limit applying to all ages wouldn’t really represent a monumental policy shift. 

The fact is, any solution we can use now will likely impact anyone under 50 with a higher than average income. Even I don’t love my solution, as it impacts me, too!

This is probably something we need to get used to — and I think a solution like the earnings limit applying to everyone is preferable to a convoluted fix that only fixes part of the problem through half measures and complex law. Let’s keep it simple so we can rip the bandaid off and get it over with!

As this and other policies develop, I’ll be here to give you the details.

Questions?
If you still have questions, you could leave a comment below, but what may be an even greater help is to join my FREE Facebook members group. It’s very active and has some really smart people who love to answer any questions you may have about Social Security. From time to time I’ll even drop in to add my thoughts, too. Also…if you haven’t already, you should join the 100,000+ subscribers on my YouTube channel!

The Double Taxation of Social Security

The concept of paying taxes on Social Security benefits doesn’t sit well with many individuals. After all, the contributions you make in hopes of receiving a future Social Security benefit are after-tax dollars that were involuntarily taken out of your paycheck.

Now the benefit you receive from the system you funded for your working career could be taxed again?!?

I can see why many people feel this puts them on the hook for paying taxes twice on the same dollars. After all, isn’t there something in our complex tax code that stops double taxation? Let’s take a closer look at the issue to get clear on what’s going on.

Is There Double Taxation on Social Security Benefits?

Through the years I’ve read a lot about this issue, but I’ve never seen anything that adequately explained it. Most articles never go deeper than the surface level, which only adds to the confusion.

Most articles I’ve seen try to explain away the double taxation on Social Security benefits issue in a different number of ways. Let me know if any of these sound familiar:

  • It’s not double taxation because the funds you collect don’t come directly from your taxes. Your taxes are paying for today’s beneficiaries, so the benefits you receive will be from someone else’s payroll taxes.
  • You have to think about your payroll taxes as a premium into a retirement account. Just like distributions from retirement accounts, Social Security benefits are also taxable income.
  • Not all of the benefits you will receive will come from the tax you paid to help fund the system. Some of the benefit comes from interest on the trust funds, some comes from taxes collected, and the rest comes from payroll taxes.
  • It’s a “contribution,” not a tax. This allows the IRS to tax you on the money you put into Social Security and the money you receive out as a benefit — because on the way out, it’s technically not a tax. (I don’t care what you call it, it’s a tax! The original Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA), the Social Security Administration, and the IRS all explicitly refer to this as a tax.)

All the “reasons” to wave away the double taxation idea that you can easily find online sound like double speak to me. That also piqued my curiosity, so I dove into the research to figure out once and for all whether this is truly a case of double taxation.

Understanding the History of Taxes on Social Security

To understand the whole issue, we have to put some context around this. Let’s back up and look at the history of taxation, how it works and finally answer the question once and for all (although for the purposes of this article, we’ll only look at taxes on the federal level)

Social Security benefits were not taxable from January of 1937, when the first Social Security benefit was paid, until the beginning of 1984. The original thinking was that since FICA taxes are paid with after-tax dollars, the benefit from them should be tax-free.

This all changed as a result of the Greenspan Commission.

(Officially, this was known as the National Commission on Social Security Reform — but it’s commonly called the Greenspan Commission after its chairman, Alan Greenspan.)

Congress and President Reagan appointed this group in 1981 to figure out how to “fix” Social Security. Much like we hear all about today, the Social Security trust fund was also very close to running out of money in the early 1980s.

They had to do something — and fast!

The Introduction of Taxes on Benefits

The Greenspan commission saw taxing Social Security benefits as the low-hanging fruit to solve the problem, despite the fact that there were three separate Treasury rulings in the early days that explicitly excluded Social Security benefits as taxable income.

The rationalization for taxing Social Security benefits was based on how the program was funded. Employees paid in half of the payroll tax from after-tax dollars and employers paid in the other half (but could deduct that as a business expense).

This meant only 50% of payroll taxes were already taxed (the employee portion) and thus up to 50% should be taxable after it was paid.

The Greenspan commission believed this would align the Social Security rules with the ones that already existed for some pensions, annuities, and other retirement savings plans. The way this works is that if you contributed after-tax dollars to your pension or annuity, your pension payments are only partially taxable. You don’t have to pay tax on the portion of the payments that represent a return of the after-tax amount you paid.

The Greenspan commission argued that the portion of the payroll tax that the employer paid was deducted, and thus no taxes were paid on it… which created the loophole to make that portion taxable, but with the recipient of the benefit footing the bill even though the employer initially paid that portion into the system.

In late 1983, a law was passed which made up to 50% of an individual’s benefit count as taxable income.

Once this tax was widely accepted,  it didn’t take long for the federal government to realize that they had been missing billions of dollars in potential revenue. The next step was to increase these taxes again.

Where the Increase in Taxable Benefits Came From

In 1993, a second “level” was added, making up to 85% of a Social Security benefit taxable. The rationalization they used to justify this was different than what the Greenspan commission used just 10 years earlier.

The members of the legislative committees decided that the average worker who lived to an average life expectancy will only contribute 15% of their expected total lifetime benefit in their part of the payroll taxes. Therefore, the other 85% must come from other sources and should be taxed.

For example, say someone earned an average wage and lived until an average life expectancy. They would likely receive a lifetime social security benefit of around $400,000.

But the employee only paid about $60,000 into Social Security. According to their logica, since that’s the only part that’s already been  taxed, up to the remainder should be taxable.

(See this article on the mechanics of calculating the amount of taxable Social Security if you want to learn more about this topic.)

Checking the Government’s Math: Unfortunately, They Have a Point

Although I didn’t want to admit it at first, the math here is mostly correct. A worker with average earnings who lives to an average age contributed payroll taxes that equal about 15% of their total expected lifetime benefit amount.

However, this doesn’t hold true if the worker’s income was  in excess of the national average wage.

With the same life expectancy, an individual who earned  150% of the national average wage would have contributed approximately 18% of their total benefit. An individual who paid in the maximum Social Security taxes would have contributed around 23% of their lifetime Social Security benefit.  

So…does the taxation of Social Security benefits constitute double taxation? Not unless you earned an income higher than the national average and have enough other income in retirement to have 85% of your benefit taxed.

But if you did…there will be some double taxation on Social Security benefits.

For example, if you worked from 1972 to 2019 and earned maximum wages, your part of the FICA tax to fund Social Security would have been around $190,000. If you file at your full retirement age and live to 85 (and get an average 2% cost of living adjustment), you’ll receive benefits totaling around $834,000.

If 85% of your benefits are taxable, you paid tax on the original FICA contributions plus $708,900 in benefit payments($834,000 x 85%). This means that in the end, you pay tax on $899,000 (85% of benefits + your part of FICA) despite having only received a total benefit of $834,000. Effectively, you get hit with double taxation on $65,000 worth of your benefits.

The Future of Social Security Taxation

If you’re breathing a sigh of relief that you won’t be impacted by double taxation on your benefits, you might not want to rest easy yet.

When Social Security benefits first became taxable, the change only affected the top 10% of retirees in terms of income earners. Now, that number is nearly 60%.

This number will likely continue to increase since the brackets that determine an individual’s income level at which point benefits become taxable has not changed since the law took effect.

In other words, the brackets are still set at 1983 and 1993 levels.

Needless to say, wages have increased between then and now. This becomes even more apparent when you look at the revenue the Social Security Administration is collecting from taxes on benefits; the tax revenue from Social Security has doubled in the last 10 years alone!

There have been a few proposals to eliminate the taxation of Social Security benefits, but with an estimated $13.2 trillion cash shortfall between 2034 and 2092, I can’t envision any proposal succeeding that would reduce revenues for the SSA. Taxes on Social Security benefits are probably here to stay.

But just because taxes may be inevitable for some, you can still plan to lessen the impact. The most obvious strategy would be to simply lower your income — but that’s not appealing or realistic for most of us.

The best option may be to build a strategic plan before you retire. For example, distributions from a Roth IRA or 401(k) are not counted against you in determining whether your Social Security benefits are taxable. You could have an unlimited level of income from these sources and still not pay tax on Social Security.

If you start now, your traditional IRA and 401(k) balances may be able to be converted to Roth accounts.

Could this be an option for you? It may be depending on a number of factors that your financial planner and tax professional can help you unravel. You’ll certainly need to keep the big picture in mind when planning.

Questions?

If you still have questions, you could leave a comment below, but what may be an even greater help is to join my FREE Facebook members group. It’s very active and has some really smart people who love to answer any questions you may have about Social Security. From time to time I’ll even drop in to add my thoughts, too. Also…if you haven’t already, you should join the 100,000+ subscribers on my YouTube channel!

The SSA Is Watching Your Social Media Accounts

government watching your social media accounts

The government really is watching you. Or at least, the Social Security Administration is watching your social media accounts.

It might sound like the plot of a movie, or the latest conspiracy theory about Big Brother out to get you. But it’s true: the Social Security Administration (SSA) wants to increase its monitoring of social media accounts.

This isn’t a future threat. It’s happening now. The SSA already monitors social media posts from individuals who are on disability. The purpose is to help identify and investigate fraudulent disability claims, but what may change is when they begin monitoring.

Why the Social Security Administration May Increase Its Social Media Surveillance

The SSA wants to start using social media activity not just to catch or track potential cases of fraud. They want to use social media content as part of the evaluation of a disability application.

If you file for disability, the Social Security Administration could start checking out your Facebook, Instagram, and other social networking profiles to make sure you aren’t behaving in a manner inconsistent with your disability.

For example, if you file a disability claim for degenerative disc disease, the SSA could potentially  check out your social media posts to verify that you aren’t participating in activities that would be inconsistent for someone with chronic back pain.

Here’s what you need to know about this potential ability of the SSA to keep an eye on you online.

With Financial Challenges Ahead for Social Security, Expect Crackdowns

The SSA’s Fiscal Year 2020 Budget Overview addresses the potential for increased social media surveillance. The document includes this line explaining what the administration may roll out in the near future:

We are evaluating how social media could be used by disability adjudicators in assessing the consistency and supportability of evidence in a claimant’s case file.

social security disability and social media post

It’s no surprise that the Social Security Administration has turned to this. Since 1970, there has been a 460% increase of individuals on disability. Unfortunately, there’s no doubt that at least some of these cases are fraudulent.

The SSA wants to increase their efforts to identify and prosecute these claimants — especially considering the administration faces huge financial challenges to continue funding the program. With an uncertain future for Social Security in general, this increasing burden on the system only makes things worse.  

Frankly, I’m not shocked that the SSA might increasingly mine social media platforms and profiles for proof of fraud — I’m only shocked that it took them this long to consider this approach.

Social Media’s Popularity Means There’s an Abundance of Data for the SSA to See

There are more people using social media accounts than ever before. According to the Pew Research Center, 69% of all adults have at least one social media account. (Just for reference, this was 5% in 2005.)

50% of those who don’t have a social media account live with someone who does and in the same research report it shows that a good percentage of these individuals use the account of the other person to see posts.

And all those people on social networks? They’re sharing content — and personal information and data — like crazy. On average, people upload 350 million photos to Facebook every day. The platform experiences 100 million daily video views and 4 million likes every minute.

The desire to share the details of your daily experience with your interconnected network helped to drive this kind of growth and mass adoption of the platforms. This treasure trove of data is too tempting and valuable for the SSA to continue ignoring as part of their evaluation.

How Will the Social Security Administration Truly Leverage Social Media for Monitoring and Surveillance of Potential Claimants?

Again, I’m not surprised to see the SSA want to take advantage of the ability to look in on the real lives of people requesting benefits from the program to confirm their claims are legitimate. But the problems come in with the application of the policy.

How would this work? As users of social media, we understand that each photo or video has to be taken in context (and with a grain of salt). We all know that social media serves as a highlight reel of our lives and doesn’t always portray reality very accurately.

In other words, we’ve all posted content meant to paint us in a good light or to make our lives look just grand all the time (even though 5 minutes before you posted a happy picture of you and your spouse you had a screaming match in the living room).

We all do this, and on some level, we all know other people do it too. As users of social media, we understand that what we see on the platforms isn’t 100% representative of our 24/7 daily lives.

But what happens when that personal connection is lost? What happens when there’s no context to the photos and your content is taken at face value with no other information taken into account? Will the SSA understand the context around a photo enough to make a decision about whether you are really disabled?

For example, the leading cause of disability payments are made due to “musculoskeletal and connective tissue” disorders. That seems easy enough to evaluate through images and videos.

After all, if an individual files a claim for disability on the basis of chronic Fibromyalgia but posts a current video of them winning their age group in a marathon, that seems like a no-brainer. Maybe they shouldn’t be on disability.

But again, given the tendency to present our best self to our network on social media, we tend to only post the photos showing us happy and healthy.

Imagine you live with daily chronic back pain, but have a rare day of low pain. Do you think you might be more likely to post photos of yourself and your activities from that particular day than the next few days where confinement to a bed is a real possibility?

You might share those rare, fleeting moments not only because you’re likely happier on that one day you experienced unusually low pain, but also because you may have enjoyed doing something you’re rarely in any physical condition to do, like hike a favorite trail. 

At around 26%, the second leading reason for disability payments are from “all other mental disorders.” How will the SSA use a social media account to evaluate those claims? Does a picture really show what’s going on inside the mind?  

I think the investigation of potential fraud is important, but it needs to be done correctly. The Social Security Administration should understand that life on social media is generally not an accurate recording of someone’s real circumstances.

Regardless of what the Social Security Administration begins doing with social media monitoring, all of us should use this as a reminder that what we say and post online matters and could have consequences.

As this and other policies develop, I’ll be here to give you the details.

Questions?

If you still have questions, you could leave a comment below, but what may be an even greater help is to join my FREE Facebook members group. It’s very active and has some really smart people who love to answer any questions you may have about Social Security. From time to time I’ll even drop in to add my thoughts, too. Also…if you haven’t already, you should join the 100,000+ subscribers on my YouTube channel!