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Avoiding Miscommunications with the SSA

Over the ~13 years that I’ve been dealing with Social Security frequently, I’ve encountered hundreds of cases of critical miscommunications between the SSA and somebody contacting the SSA to apply for benefits or ask questions about their benefits. When I say “critical miscommunication,” I’m talking about cases in which the result is the person making a poor decision based on the resulting misunderstanding, cases in which the person completely misses out on benefits they could have received, or cases in which the result is a tremendous amount of administrative hassle in order to get the situation fixed.

There are, broadly speaking, two things you can do when interacting with the SSA to minimize the likelihood of such miscommunications:

When applying for benefits, apply online (except for survivor benefits, for which you can’t file online).
Be very careful about terminology (both yours and theirs).

Apply Online

In my entire time dealing with Social Security issues, I’ve never had any direct personal experience of an online application going wrong. I’ve encountered one story on the Bogleheads forum of such. In contrast, I don’t know how many people I’ve interacted with over the years who had a phone or in-person application not go according to plan. At least a hundred, I’m sure.

And really this shouldn’t be that surprising. Humans make mistakes. Computers, less so.

So, when applying for retirement or spousal benefits, please, apply online. And help your loved ones apply online.

Unfortunately, you cannot apply for survivor benefits online. You’ll have to make an appointment to apply over the phone or in person.

Exercise Caution with Terminology

Any time you’re dealing with anybody at the SSA, it’s important to be very careful with the terminology you use and pay careful attention to the terminology they are using.

I’ve encountered a lot of situations that followed a pattern like this:

Bob has a question about Social Security. Let’s call it Question A.
Bob visits his local SSA office.
Bob meets with an SSA employee and asks the employee his question. Unfortunately, Bob uses the wrong terminology and accidentally asks Question B instead, without realizing the distinction.
The SSA employee answers Question B.
Now Bob thinks that the answer to Question B is the answer to Question A.

Oops.

With something as complex as Social Security, there are infinite possible miscommunications and misunderstandings. But there are a handful that come up quite a lot.

Eligible vs. Entitled

You are eligible for a given type of benefit once you meet the requirements for that type of benefit but you have not yet filed for it. You are entitled once you are eligible for the benefit and have filed for it.

Example miscommunication: Bob asks, “Once I’m 62 and entitled to a retirement benefit, can I put off filing for my spousal benefit, or do I have to file for that immediately?” In Bob’s mind, in the example scenario he had not yet filed for his retirement benefit. He should have said eligible rather than entitled. If the SSA employee simply answers the question as stated (rather than trying to suss out what Bob might have meant to say), they will answer the question assuming that, in the scenario given, Bob has already filed for his retirement benefit, which can change the answer.

Monthly Benefit vs. Primary Insurance Amount (PIA)

Another common source of miscommunication is the distinction between a monthly benefit amount and a primary insurance amount. Your PIA is the monthly retirement benefit you would receive if you file for it exactly at your full retirement age. Your actual monthly benefit could be more or less than your PIA, depending on the age at which you file as well as various other factors (e.g., the earnings test).

Example miscommunication: Julie asks, “After I file for my retirement benefit at age 70 and Jimmy files for his benefit as my spouse, what will his total monthly benefit be?” The SSA employee responds, “Half of your primary insurance amount.” If Julie doesn’t recognize the distinction between her monthly benefit and her PIA, she may think that Jimmy is going to get half of her monthly benefit, when in reality he’ll receive less than that.

Spousal Benefits vs. Survivor Benefits

Spousal benefits (a.k.a. husband/wife benefits) are only applicable while both spouses are still living. Survivor benefits (a.k.a. surviving spouse benefits or widow/widower benefits) become relevant after one spouse’s death.

Example miscommunication: Samantha is the higher earner in her marriage, and she’s trying to understand how her filing date could affect the amount her spouse could receive as a survivor benefit later, if applicable. She asks, “If I wait until age 70, does that increase the amount that Neil can receive as my spouse?” The SSA employee responds, “No, his benefit as your spouse does not depend on the age at which you file for your retirement benefit.” That’s true. But his benefit as her survivor (if applicable) would depend on the age at which she filed for her retirement benefit.

You Never “Switch from” a Retirement Benefit to a Spousal or Survivor Benefit

Another common source of miscommunications is the misconception that you “switch to” a spousal or survivor benefit after having received your own retirement benefit earlier. That never happens. You keep receiving your own retirement benefit, and you receive a spousal or survivor benefit in addition to the retirement benefit.

Example miscommunication: Frank’s PIA is $2,000. His spouse Betty’s PIA is $600. Betty is several years older than Frank. She files for her own retirement benefit at her full retirement age, and she asks what her spousal benefit will be after Frank files for his retirement benefit. The SSA employee replies, correctly, that it will be $400. Frank and Betty might misunderstand this to mean that Betty will only get her own $600 retirement benefit (i.e., the greater of the two amounts) or that her monthly benefit will even decrease to $400. In reality, she will get her $600 retirement benefit, plus her $400 spousal benefit, for a total monthly benefit of $1,000 (i.e., 50% of Frank’s PIA).

Do Not Use the Verb “Retire”

For some reason, the SSA often refers to filing for a retirement benefit as “retiring.” This is not a part of SSA technical jargon, but it is something that appears in various publications of theirs, and it’s the way that many SSA employees speak. (In other words, this is a case of the SSA being lazy/imprecise with their own wording, which frankly I find inexcusable given how complicated this stuff is even when we communicate with perfect precision.)

If you are providing a hypothetical scenario and you mean to say that you’ll stop work at, for example, age 64, use those words: “stop work at age 64.” If you say “retire at age 64” the SSA employee might think you mean “apply for retirement benefits at age 64.”

Avoiding Miscommunications and Mistakes

So, again, apply online (when possible), be careful with your wording, and pay close attention to the exact wording that the SSA employee is using.

I’ll also point out that, while this exercise of caution does become more difficult as more complicating factors come up (e.g., benefit calculations when WEP/GPO are involved), it also becomes even more critical. So take your time.

I think it’s often 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 (if it’s an in-person appointment) the SSA employee you meet with can read it and reread it as necessary.

What is the Best Age to Claim Social Security?

Read the answers to this question and several other Social Security questions in my latest book:


Social Security Made Simple: Social Security Retirement Benefits and Related Planning Topics Explained in 100 Pages or Less

Click here to see it on Amazon.

Disclaimer:Your subscription to this blog does not create a CPA-client or other professional services relationship between you and Michael Piper or between you and Simple Subjects, LLC. By subscribing, you explicitly agree not to hold Michael Piper or Simple Subjects, LLC liable in any way for damages arising from decisions you make based on the information available herein. Neither Michael Piper nor Simple Subjects, LLC makes any warranty as to the accuracy of any information contained in this communication. The information contained herein is for informational and entertainment purposes only and does not constitute financial advice. On financial matters for which assistance is needed, I strongly urge you to meet with a professional advisor who (unlike me) has a professional relationship with you and who (again, unlike me) knows the relevant details of your situation.

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