How to Ease the Pain of Dealing with Social Security

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At a retirement planning seminar I was leading recently, a few people groused about the difficulty of dealing with Social Security offices. There were a lot of nodding heads in the audience, although it's hard to tell if their agreement stemmed from personal experience or just a general dissatisfaction with "the system."

If dealing with Social Security is in your future, then read on for tips on how to make the system work for you.

Here's one example of the complaints I was hearing: After I explained the "file and suspend" strategy that can boost lifetime payments for married couples, one participant told me it took him almost a year to get the Social Security Administration to start the benefits he had suspended.

With the file and suspend strategy, the primary wage earner -- in this case the husband -- can file for benefits at age 66 and then immediately suspend his benefits. This allows his wife to begin taking the spousal benefit when she has attained her full retirement age based on her husband's earnings record but delay taking her own wage earnings' benefit. Since the husband suspended his benefits, he'll still get the increase for delaying his retirement income when he starts it at age 70.

I asked Andy Landis, author of "Social Security: The Inside Story" for his take on dealing with the Social Security Administration. "Social Security has suffered two big budget cuts in the past two years, and office hours were slashed across the board," Landis told me. "As a result, we need to learn to do our Social Security business with less staff support."

He advises people to sign up for a "My Social Security" account at www.ssa.gov, as well as to use the SSA website to file claims, find information and download the agency's mobile app. The SSA's phone lines are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and calling earlier or later in the day also may help people dodge the busier midday hours and obtain speedier service.

It's also enlightening to hear what Landis had to say about the "file and suspend" situation: "Usually SSA personnel are experts at exotic maximization strategies like 'file and suspend' or 'spouse-only benefits.' But sometimes they balk. At times like that, it's helpful to have backup, like SSA's own webpage, www.ssa.gov/retire2/suspend.htm. This web address is the exact section of the employee operating manual that not only authorizes the strategy but tells how to implement it."

Landis and I often recommend that you check your earnings record to make sure your benefits will be calculated accurately. This, of course, also has the potential to cause some time-consuming interaction with SSA staff. Here's what Landis had to say about that situation:

"Let's say you check your earnings record through your 'My Social Security' account and find an error. In SSA-speak, that's called an 'earnings discrepancy.' Ninety-nine percent of the time that can be fixed by simply calling SSA at (800) SSA-1213. Sometimes they'll ask you to help by supplying a W-2 from the year in question, but usually a review of their own records will uncover the problem -- typically a typo on an employer's earnings report."

While these steps may seem like a lot of trouble, they're worth your time if they result in thousands of dollars of additional payments over your lifetime. In the seminar example I cited above with the "file and suspend" strategy, I estimated that the married couple will receive about $50,000 additional income over their lifetime by implementing the strategy. Even if you need to spend a few days dealing with SSA representatives to make that happen, in effect, you're earning thousands of dollars per day for those few days of work. Not a bad job to have!

My experience is that the vast majority of SSA personnel are sincere, hardworking individuals who genuinely want to serve the public. They've been caught between government efforts to slash their budget and well-meaning initiatives to help reduce fraud and waste. Let's give them some slack and have the patience to take the time necessary to receive the benefits we've earned.

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