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Can You Trust Information from the SSA?

A reader writes in, asking:

“I’ve heard from a few different acquaintances that they received bad information or advice from the SSA. Is it really true that you can’t even trust information coming directly from the Social Security Administration?”

It’s true that SSA employees sometimes provide inaccurate information. SSA representatives are dealing with a complex set of rules regarding a broad range of topics. And they only get a limited amount of training before being put on the front line, answering people’s questions. Mistakes happen, despite best efforts and good intentions.

It’s also important to recognize that Social Security rules use very specific terminology. I have encountered many situations in which an SSA employee provided an answer that was 100% correct — but the person asking the question misunderstood the answer. I’ve also encountered numerous situations in which a person accidentally asks something other than what they meant to ask (e.g., they ask whether they are entitled to a benefit, when they really wanted to know whether they’re eligible for that benefit), and the SSA employee correctly answers the question asked. And, again, the net result is that the person comes away with a misunderstanding, even though the SSA employee provided a correct answer to the question that was asked.

The key takeaway here is that, if you want to be truly sure of something, you have to look at the official rules. I know that stinks, because they can be challenging to read. But before relying on something somebody tells you (whether that somebody is an SSA employee, me, or anybody else), try to find confirmation from an official source. Here are the three official sources to check, in order of authority (from highest to lowest):

A few points about the above sources:

  1. The Regulations have not been updated for the changes made by the Bipartisan Budget Budget Act of 2015. (If you need information relating to deemed filing or voluntary suspension, I would go to the POMS.)
  2. The POMS is by far the most thorough of the sources above. It does not, however, have any legal authority. So if, for example, something in the POMS contradicts something in the Act, the Act wins.
  3. Other than the three above sources, most pages on the SSA website are akin to IRS publications in that they’re intended to be plain-english explanations of the rules, but they may use imprecise language or omit exceptions that could be relevant to you.

Finally, let me offer two related tips about dealing with the SSA:

  1. Remember that SSA employees are not financial planners. They are not really trained for giving advice, because that’s not their job. Rather, they are essentially “order takers” whose job is to process the application that you file and to answer questions about what benefits you are/aren’t entitled to (or eligible for).
  2. When you apply for Social Security, apply online. In all the time I’ve been working with Social Security, I’ve only ever heard from one person whose online application was processed incorrectly. Conversely, I have heard from I have-no-idea-how-many people about their in-person or phone applications being processed incorrectly.

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"An excellent review of various facts and decision-making components associated with the Social Security benefits. The book provides a lot of very useful information within small space."
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