Stalking a Social Security application decision

Perhaps I was a big too smug when I wrote about how quickly my online application for my Social Security retirement benefits was processed. Apparently, pride does goeth before the fall.

Within two weeks of applying for benefits, I received confirmation from the Social Security Administration that my retirement benefits would begin in December 2020, the month I reached my full retirement age, with the initial payment in January 2021. Sure enough, I received my first direct deposit of retirement benefits in January.

I decided to claim benefits at my full retirement age, when earnings restrictions disappear, so I could trigger spousal benefits for my husband. Because Mike was born before the Jan. 1, 1954, cut-off date, he is among the dwindling group of retirees who are eligible to restrict his Social Security claim to spousal benefits while his own retirement benefit continues to grow to the maximum amount up until 70. The catch was I had to claim my retirement benefits to trigger a spousal benefit for him.

We waited until we had my benefits confirmation letter in hand before Mike applied for his spousal benefits online in early December. He received an immediate email notification that his application had been received and was being reviewed. We assumed his application would be processed as quickly as mine. We were wrong.

We waited through Christmas and through New Year’s Day, rationalizing that the wheels of government grind to a halt during the holidays. By the end of January, more than seven weeks after his initial application for spousal benefits, we still had received no response. We decided to take action.

Mike’s initial benefit notification letter said his application was being processed by the SSA office in Boston. SSA’s network of more than 1,400 offices have been closed to the public since March 17, 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So it’s not unusual to divvy up online applications among the agency’s myriad offices and more than 60,000 employees.

First, we tracked down the phone number for the Boston office. The first SSA representative we spoke to said we had called the wrong regional office. No, we insisted, the notification email said Mike’s Social Security application was being handled in Boston. The operator reluctantly transferred us to an in-house claims representative.

We explained our situation to the second agency representative. She said that since Mike was claiming spousal benefits on my record, we would have to speak the employee who handled my retirement claim. She quickly transferred us to a third agency representative.

The third employee said no, she could not help us because although she had processed and approved my claim, she had nothing to do with Mike’s application. When pressed, she reluctantly connected us to a fourth employee.

Bingo! The fourth employee confirmed that she had handled Mike’s application. I had assumed the delay was because Mike’s situation is a bit complicated. As a federal retiree, he was initially covered by the Civil Service Retirement System, which does not participate in Social Security. But because Mike left government service for a few years and was covered by a different retirement system when he returned — one that did participate in Social Security — he was exempt from both the Windfall Elimination Provision that could reduce his own benefits and the Government Pension Offset rule that could affect his Social Security spousal benefits. I had all the relevant agency rules and his earnings record on hand to argue his case.

It turns out I didn’t need to play Perry Mason. After reviewing Mike’s application, the SSA rep realized that she had accidently failed to finish processing his claim. No major policy issue. No apparent reason. Just human error. Sorry, she said.

After confirming our marriage date and location to establish that Mike was eligible to claiming spousal benefits on my work record, she said his application was approved and he would receive an official benefit notification letter by mail.

Ten days letter, Mike still hadn’t received a letter. We were girding for another round of SSA phone tag when he received a pleasant surprise today: He received a direct deposit for two months’ worth of spousal benefits backdated to December.

All’s well that ends well, I suppose. But let this be a lesson to financial advisers and Social Security applicants. Patience may be a virtue, but sometimes perseverance is needed to get the job done.

(Questions about Social Security rules? Find the answers in Mary Beth Franklin’s ebook at InvestmentNews.com/MBFebook.)

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