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Getting Advice from the SSA

A reader writes in, asking:

“Does the Social Security Administration offer any form of counseling so that public employees can make informed decisions before it’s too late?  I can’t tell you the number of public employees I talk to that are clueless about all the twists that factor into their Social Security benefit calculation. The online statements aren’t much help.”

Regardless of your employment status (i.e., public employee, private employee, self-employed, or unemployed), you can always make an appointment to speak with an SSA representative so that they can explain your options. If you do that though, it’s important to be aware that SSA employees, like anyone, can make mistakes.

Even more importantly, it’s critical to try to minimize the likelihood of the miscommunications that are so common when discussing complex Social Security topics (e.g., married couple claiming strategies or claiming strategies when WEP/GPO are involved). For example, I’ve heard from numerous people with stories that go something like this:

  • Bob visits his local SSA office.
  • Bob meets with an SSA employee and asks the employee a question — let’s call it Question A.
  • The SSA employee thinks that Bob asked Question B (either because Bob used incorrect terminology when asking his question, because he did not explicitly state all the relevant assumptions underlying his question, or because the SSA employee simply misunderstood something that Bob said).
  • The SSA employee answers Question B.
  • Through the entire conversation, the miscommunication goes unnoticed by both people involved, and Bob walks away thinking that the answer to Question B is the answer to Question A — only to find out the truth later, when something goes wrong (e.g., he gets a check for less than he expected or he is told he’s ineligible for a benefit that he thought he’d be able to claim).

To avoid scenarios like the above, it’s important to be as explicit as possible about exactly what it is that you want to know. For example, if you want to know how much you or your spouse would receive per month if you followed a given claiming strategy:

  • Be sure to clearly state the age at which each person is retiring,
  • Be sure to clearly state the age at which each person is filing for any benefits, and
  • If somebody is filing a restricted application (i.e., an application after reaching FRA for just spousal benefits) or filing and suspending, be sure to state that clearly.

And when asking about a particular benefit, be sure to state clearly whether you are asking about your retirement benefit, your spousal benefit, your widow/widower benefit, or your total monthly benefit (e.g., your retirement benefit plus spousal or widow/widower benefit, if applicable).

Frankly, I think it’s a good idea to put your question on paper. That way you can plan it out thoroughly beforehand, you won’t forget to state anything important, and the SSA employee you meet with can read it and reread it as necessary.

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Social Security cover Social Security Made Simple: Social Security Retirement Benefits and Related Planning Topics Explained in 100 Pages or Less
Topics Covered in the Book:
  • How retirement benefits, spousal benefits, and widow(er) benefits are calculated,
  • How to decide the best age to claim your benefit,
  • How Social Security benefits are taxed and how that affects tax planning,
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A Testimonial from a Reader on Amazon:

"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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