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How to Research a Social Security Question

Based on reader feedback, the recent “How to Research a Tax Question” article was super popular. A handful of people suggested doing the same thing, but with Social Security. So, what follows are my tips for researching a Social Security question.

With tax questions, the three broad categories of authoritative sources are the law (Internal Revenue Code), Treasury regulations (as well as revenue rulings), and court cases.

Similarly, for Social Security, we have the law (Social Security Act), regulations, and court cases. But I will tell you that in ~13 years of dealing regularly with Social Security topics, I don’t recall a single time in which I had to refer to court cases. (One important point here is that I don’t deal with Social Security disability claims. If that’s a relevant topic for you, court cases may be of more interest.)

The three primary sources that I refer to regularly are:

The Law (Social Security Act)

Analogous to the Internal Revenue Code, it is the Social Security Act that is the most authoritative source. That is, if something written somewhere else contradicts what is plainly written in the Act, it’s the Act that wins.

But as with the Internal Revenue Code, the Social Security Act is written in legalese. So be prepared to read slowly, thoroughly, cautiously, and repeatedly in order to gain a full understanding. Be patient with yourself.

Code of Federal Regulations (CFR)

After the law itself, the regulations are the next most authoritative source. Interestingly, somewhat unlike Treasury regulations, the Social Security regulations do not seek to elaborate only upon points that might be unclear in the law. Rather, they seek to explain the whole darned thing, in plainer language than the law itself.

In other words, the CFR is more comprehensive and easier to read than the law itself. For most everyday uses, that makes it a clear win, relative to the Act, as a starting point for research. And it is indeed my first place to look, generally speaking. (But always do keep in mind that it’s a lower level of authority than the law. If there’s a contradiction between the two, the law wins.)

For me, researching via the CFR usually means starting with the homepage for Part 404 and then scrolling (or using “control/command + F”) to the applicable section. A Google-based approach (such as the following example query) can work, but it’s somewhat less successful, in my experience, than trying a similar trick for internal revenue code sections. Hence my “scroll to the relevant part” approach.

  • ssa cfr survivor benefit requirements

One last super important point about the CFR on the SSA website: it was never updated for the changes made by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015. So on topics of deemed filing and voluntary suspension, it’s giving you the old rules, which are no longer applicable for anybody.

Program Operations Manual System (POMS)

Next we have the Program Operations Manual System (POMS). The POMS is the SSA’s internal manual, which they make available to the public. Given that it’s written by the SSA — and is in fact the set of directions that SSA employees will use when processing an application for benefits — it’s extremely credible.  And it’s by far the most thorough source.

But it must be remembered that the POMS has no legal authority. In contexts in which you really want to be sure, you can’t rely solely on the POMS, as the SSA can reword it at any time (provided that the new wording is still in keeping with the law).*

The POMS is meant to be read by non-lawyer human beings, so the sentence structure it uses is not legalese. But it is nonetheless intended for an internal audience (i.e., SSA employees), so it’s loaded with jargon and acronyms. (Here’s a glossary of some of the most common acronyms.)

As far as finding something in the POMS, you might be able to find something just by browsing, starting at the table of contents. But I have definitely had better results starting with a Google query, such as this:

  • ssa poms deemed filing

In many cases I find that I have to take a “from both directions” approach. That is, I Google to find a POMS section that is at least closely related to the information I’m seeking. Then I look in the top of the page for the section reference (e.g., RS 00615.004). And then I start at the POMS table of contents and drill down in that direction, until I’m looking at a narrower table of contents with a list of related sections, one of which hopefully has the information I need.

Social Security Handbook

Finally, one source that you may want to check is the Social Security Handbook. It’s very similar to IRS publications in that:

  • It’s written in plain language, and it’s from a very credible source.
  • But it has no legal authority, and in some cases it leaves out various exceptions or includes simplifications.

*There was one infamous case, which I will keep anonymous because my point is only to be illustrative of the concept rather than to name names. Some years ago, a book about Social Security was written which contained a recommendation for a filing strategy for disability benefit recipients. The author believed that the strategy in question was allowed, based on his/her reading of the relevant part of the POMS. After the publication of the book, the SSA essentially said, “Sorry, you can’t do that. There’s nothing in the law that supports that position.” And indeed there isn’t. So they rewrote the POMS to be more clear that the strategy in question is not allowed.

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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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