Can You Trust Social Security's Phone Representatives?

Last Updated Jul 25, 2011 4:43 PM EDT

Since I've been writing my posts on Social Security benefits, I've received emails and comments from several readers who complain that they can't get a consistent or correct answer when they call the Social Security Administration. So is it true? Can you trust the answers you get when you call Social Security?

I'd be very careful relying on answers you hear when you're on the phone with Social Security, particularly when it comes to complex situations. But let me be clear about my warning: This isn't a judgment on the Social Security Administration, and I'm not throwing my support to extremists who want to dismantle our Social Security and Medicare programs. Social Security and Medicare benefits are a critical part of seniors' financial security, and they're necessary for a compassionate society. And I think the Social Security Administration does a pretty good job of administering a complex program. Let me tell you why.

The laws and regulations that surround Social Security and Medicare benefits can be extremely complex. Now mix this complexity with situations like these:
  • Citizens might not ask questions accurately, or they may use certain terms incorrectly, at a time when you need absolute precision with the terms you use.
  • Social Security representatives are expected to instantly respond to questions on a very complex subject, and occasionally they might not get it right. Or they might be tired at the end of the day -- after all, they're human, too.
  • Social Security is not immune from cost-cutting initiatives, which can impact the skills and training of Social Security service representatives.
Let me give you one example of this complexity. I recently wrote about "file and suspend" as a way for a married couple to boost their Social Security benefits. This is a technique where a worker files for benefits after attaining his or her Full Retirement Age (FRA), but then immediately suspends the benefits in order to earn delayed retirement credits. At the same time, because the worker filed for benefits, the spouse is eligible to begin collecting the spousal benefit based on the worker's earnings record.

A few clever readers sent me emails asking if a husband and wife who had both worked full careers could do a double file and suspend. The idea was, both the husband and wife would file and suspend the benefit based on their own earnings record. This could allow the husband to collect the spousal benefit based on the wife's earnings record, and the wife to collect the spousal benefit based on the husband's earnings record, and both would still earn delayed retirement credits on their own benefits. Sweet!

Not so fast. I called Social Security to ask them if this was an acceptable procedure and got an answer like this: "I don't see why you couldn't do this." While this answer didn't exactly endorse the idea, it gave me hope. Then I got Andy Landis involved -- he's the author of Social Security: The Inside Story. He called one of his contacts at Social Security who said "No way." Andy did a little more digging and found an obscure citation in the internal manual for administering Social Security that also appeared to nix the idea (it's important to note that they were only nixing the double file and suspend idea; it's still feasible for one spouse to file and suspend).

Andy also told me that the people who answer the phone at the Social Security Administration are called "service representatives." They're trained to answer basic questions on Social Security and Medicare, and to handle transactions such as status changes. The people who actually process claims are called "claims representatives," and they're more likely to be trained on the technical details of the more complex issues.

So here's the bottom line for me: See if you can get an answer on Social Security's website; often you can find the answers to your questions. If the answer to a question about Social Security is really important to your planning, I'd call two or three times, just to compare the answers you get. Ask for citations on Social Security's website or the internal administration manual that supports the answers. You might even ask to speak to a claims representative, just to be sure.

While this research might take some extra time, there's nothing wrong with that. You're trying to maximize a valuable benefit, so it's worth taking the time to get it right.

I'm always appreciative for Social Security and Medicare benefits, even if it occasionally gets frustrating dealing with them. That's much better than not having any Social Security and Medicare benefits at all. And don't tell me that the private sector could provide better service. Anybody who's dealt with an insurance company on medical claims or a large bank on their mortgage will have their own horror stories about the service they receive.

Image from iStockphoto contributor Lisay
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    For more than 35 years, consulting actuary Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs. Now he's a Research Scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct, and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He also delivers retirement planning workshops and has authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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