Getting answers to your Social Security questions can be really difficult.
I’ve talked to many individuals who have nearly given up in frustration and just accepted what they were being told (even if it didn’t make sense). One client, Mr. Brewer, really stands out in my memory. He’d been looking for answers for a long time and had just returned from the local Social Security office. He was red-faced angry! “Devin, why is Social Security so &#%!@ complicated?”
Thankfully, he wasn’t directing his anger at me but at an almost incomprehensible set of Social Security rules.
Why It’s So Difficult to Get Answers
If you find the Social Security rules to be more than a little bewildering, you’re not alone. There aren’t many who find them easy to understand. For example, consider this excerpt from their rules.
“We consider that an initial determination is correct even if we send an incorrect notice.”
Huh? Trying to understand that makes my head hurt!
If you try to read it for long, you see that the Social Securityrule book is full of great examples of how not to write clearly. I don’t think they are trying to make it confusing on purpose 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 108,000 pages!
In addition to this enormous rule book, they have been challenged by budget cuts. According to a Senate report, the agency has shut down 64 field offices just since 2010!
The end goal of these cuts? They want everyone to begin using the tools on the massive websites to conduct their business.
If you look at the demographics, 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!
Unfortunately, finding answers to your Social Security questions is probably not going to get any easier in the future. But if you know where (and how) to look for help, your chances of getting your questions answered should be much better.
Here’s where you should start:
Social Security Administration
The Social Security Administration may be the most obvious choice for assistance with Social Security questions, but it’s not always that easy. 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.
If you want to increase your chances of finding someone who knows a lot about the program, you need to understand the hierarchy within your local Social Security office.
If you’ve ever been to your local office, you’ve probably seen a maze of cubicles and possibly more employees than you expected. All these people have a role and handle very specific areas of Social Security benefits. Within each Social Security office there is a hierarchy of representatives. Not all are created equal. For retirement and disability benefits, the Social Security employee will most likely have one of the following titles.
1) Service Representative
Service Representatives have the responsibility of handling general inquiries, fixing simple post-claim issues and answering the phones. Simply put, they are generalist. Although this is the first position for a new hire, I wouldn’t automatically discount their experience. Some Service Representatives begin, and end, a long Social Security career with the same title. Just understand, the Service Representative that answers your call may be a 6 month employee-or a 25 year employee.
2) Claims Representative
The Claims Representative is there for one reason. To assist individuals in filing claims to benefits under Social Security programs. Unless you are ready to process your claim, you’ll have little interaction with this representative.
3) Technical Expert
The Technical Experts handle the complex cases and do the stuff that’s too complicated for the others. Those I’ve come in contact with have exhibited a deep understanding of the rules and provisions of the Social Security programs. But you won’t find them answering the phones or meeting with just anyone. Normally, you have to be referred by a Service Representative or a Claims Representative to get in front of the Technical Expert.
The next time you call (or visit) your local Social Security office, you’ll speak to a Service Representative. Give them a chance and they may be able to help you. However, if you have ANY doubt about what you’re being told, it’s time to escalate. Ask them to let you speak to a Technical Expert. It may take a while, but eventually you’ll be able speak to the most knowledgeable person in the office.
If you want to find the number to your local office, here’s the Social Security office locator.
If you’ve exhausted your options at the Social Security office, you may want to try to find a Social Security attorney to help you. But you may get frustrated here as well. Some attorneys can help you with your Social Security questions, 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 because there are generally no past due benefits owed. 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 fee they are accustomed to receiving.
Financial planners are uniquely positioned to answer Social Security questions. And most can as long as you stay at a basic level. But if it gets complex, most just simply do not understand the nuances of Social Security well enough to give good solid answers.
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, do not proceed! 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. Instead, they should be willing to help you with your situation on an hourly or flat fee basis.
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 rules changed with the 2015 budget act?
- What are the length of marriage rules?
- What is the earnings limitation?
- Can you explain provisional income?
It’s not necessarily important that you know the answers to these questions before you ask them. The main purpose of these screening questions is to gauge the planner’s comfort level with Social Security. 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!
I know, the last suggestion is self promotional. I don’t normally do that in my speaking or writing, but here’s why I did in this article.
There’s a lot riding on you getting good answers to your Social Security questions. The amount of benefits you, or your survivor, will receive can often hinge on how much you know! So don’t let this complicated system get the best of you. If you search in long enough, you should find get the help you need.
But if you can’t…I may be able to help.