Social Security and You: SSA Representatives Challenge Me
Frequently, I hear from readers who take one of my columns into their local Social Security office to help make their case during benefit inquiries. More often than not, the Social Security representative they are talking to is skeptical, sometimes even hostile, about my involvement in the situation. I can sort of understand that. They usually have no idea who I am or my connection to the Social Security Administration. As far as they know, I'm just some yahoo who writes a newspaper column. They don't know that I spent 32 years working for SSA in a series of increasingly responsible jobs, or that I have been writing this column covering Social Security issues for almost 22 years. Today's questions illustrate this phenomenon.
Q: My wife and I went to our local Social Security office to sign her up. She is 66 years old and filed a restricted claim on my record. I am 72. I started my benefits when I was 70, so I am getting the 32 percent "delayed retirement credit" added into my monthly benefits. My wife asked if her future widow's benefits would include those extra credits. The caseworker said "No." She said the widow's rate is based on my full retirement age rate, not my age 70 benefit. We had brought along one of your recent columns in which you said that widow's benefits do include the delayed retirement bonus and showed it to her. And she said: "I am the office expert on widow's benefits. Who are you going to believe? Some clown who writes a newspaper column? Or the office expert on widow's benefits." We went home feeling chastised. Besides your column, do you have something in black and white we can take back to the office and show this "expert" to prove you are right?
A: I usually don't like to get involved in cases like this. In other words, I don't like to have to dig out SSA regulations to prove that I am right to some ill-informed SSA representative. This self-appointed "office expert on widow's benefits" should be able to do this research herself. But it was the "clown" comment that raised my hackles and sent me searching for proof.
The research tool that spells out all of SSA's rules and regulations is called the "Program Operations Manual System," or POMS. It is a very extensive document. Before it was digitized, it filled about 20 three-inch binders. But now it's online. If you ever want to get thoroughly bored, you can check it out. Go to www.socialsecurity.gov and click the menu button. Way at the bottom of the menu page, under "Research Planning and Policy," you will see a link called "Program Rules." Click on it. In the page that pops up, click on "Employee Operating Instructions" and then open up the "Programs Operations Manual System" link. And then ... well ... good luck! Reading a scholarly tome on rocket science is only slightly more difficult than trying to negotiate POMS.
Anyway, tell this "expert" to check out POMS RS 00615.706. That section is titled "Computation of the Widow(er)'s Benefit with DRCs." It goes on to explain how a worker's delayed retirement credits are added into a widow's (or widower's) Social Security benefits.
Q: I worked for the government most of my life. Therefore, I paid into the civil service retirement system, not Social Security. But I did some odd jobs over the years where I did pay into Social Security. Now that I am 66 and retired, I get a very small Social Security check (it's about $150). As you know, that benefit is reduced by the Windfall Elimination Provision. I just took on a consulting job that will pay me a six-figure salary for the next several years. Social Security taxes will be deducted from my paychecks. I was hoping this extra income I have, and these extra taxes I am paying, will lessen the impact of my WEP reduction. As you know, in a prior email, you told me my WEP reduction will be lessened. I took that email into my Social Security office. The rep I showed it to said you are wrong. He told me, "WEP reductions are carved in stone at the time you file for benefits and can never be changed." Who is right?
A: I'm right, and the representative you talked to is wrong. But this time, I'm not going to dig through the mind-numbing POMS system to find the proof. I can just relay my own experience.
But before I do, I must help my readers understand what we are talking about. I have spent many past columns explaining WEP in detail, but here it is in a nutshell. The Social Security benefit formula is skewed to help low-income people get a better deal out of their retirement benefits. Those workers who spend the bulk of their careers in jobs not covered by Social Security but who have worked enough on the side to qualify for a Social Security benefit get the bonus intended for low-income workers (because they have a gap-filled Social Security record). The WEP reduction adjusts their Social Security benefit to eliminate that windfall. Thus the name: "Windfall Elimination Provision."
Anyway, here is my story. Many readers may find this hard to believe, but even though I spent 32 years working for the Social Security Administration, I didn't pay a nickel of Social Security taxes all those years. As an older federal employee, I was covered by the civil service retirement system. (FYI: All federal employees hired since 1984 pay into Social Security. I was hired in 1973.) But I did work at jobs that were covered by Social Security before I started working for the government. This earned me a very meager Social Security retirement benefit that got the maximum WEP reduction.
But since I retired, I've been writing this column and doing some consulting gigs for which I pay Social Security self-employment taxes. And every year, my Social Security benefit gets bumped up a few dollars because my WEP reduction is recalculated to give me credit for these extra earnings. So I know from personal experience that, despite what the Social Security rep told you, your WEP reduction will not be "carved in stone."
If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at email@example.com. To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.