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Social Security and You: Protective Filing Dates

Tom Margenau on

This is going to be a column about a special procedure that the Social Security Administration routinely uses that is intended to help people by protecting their rights to possible benefits. It's called a "protective filing date." In a nutshell, if you contact the SSA and tell them you intend to file for some kind of Social Security benefit, and give them your name and Social Security number, it establishes a record that could possibly be used as a starting date for any Social Security application you might file later on. However, that protective date is usually good for only six months.

The best way to explain this procedure in more detail is by answering some questions I got from readers about this issue.

Q: My wife recently signed up for Social Security. She wanted her benefits to start in June, when she will be 65 years old. But then the Social Security rep got her all confused because he said their records showed that my wife called them back in January. And he said because she did that, she has to start her benefits in January at a lesser rate that what she would have been due had she been allowed to start her benefits in June as she wanted. She got so confused that she just hung up and ended the call. Now we don't know what to do. Can you help us?

A: I've got a hunch your wife misunderstood what the SSA rep was telling her. Or possibly he just didn't do a very good job of explaining the situation.

When your wife called the Social Security people back in January, they established a "protective filing date" of January for her. And that simply means that if at some point within the next six months she decided to actually file for benefits, she could start those benefits in January if she wanted to. It did not mean that she must start those benefits in January.

So, if your wife wants her benefits to start in June at age 65, she can have them start in June. It's just that she could decide to have them start in January if she wanted to. If she did that, she'd get about 3% less per month in ongoing benefits, but on the other hand, she would get a big back pay check.

Q: I've been reading your column for years, and I've read your Social Security book. So, I think I'm a pretty good Social Security expert. I've got a friend who is 64 years old, and she recently started her retirement benefits. She told me she got a check for retroactive benefits. But I knew from reading your column and book that retroactive benefits can only be paid to people who have reached their full retirement age or older. So, I told her this couldn't be, since she was only 64 years old. But she showed me her bank statement, and sure enough, there was a Social Security deposit for about $8,000 in back pay benefits. So how did that happen?

A: It all has to do with this protective filing date business. You are right that normally you can only get retroactive benefits if you are past your full retirement age. Or to put that another way, the law says that no retroactive benefits can be made if it involves the payment of reduced retirement benefits.

I will bet my next Social Security check that this friend of yours contacted the SSA a number of months before she finally decided to file for benefits. And when she did actually sign on the dotted line, they used that protected date as her filing date. So that's why she got the back pay check.

 

And even though she got that back pay check, it technically was not a retroactive payment. In other words, on Social Security's books, it's as if she actually filed her claim on that past protective date.

Q: I will reach my full retirement age in two months. I'm still not sure if I want to file for my Social Security to start then or wait until I'm 70. I recently got a letter from the Social Security people telling me that if I don't file for benefits by the end of this month, I will lose any retroactive benefits I might be due. I called the SSA immediately and a rep told me something about a "protected date" because I called them last November asking some questions. Now I'm all confused. What's this all about?

A: When you called them in November, that set up a "protective filing date" of November. And because those dates are good for six months, the letter you got was simply informing you that you have another month to decide if you want to use November as a possible starting month for your benefits.

But it sounds like you don't want to do that. You said you want your benefits to begin either when you reach your full retirement age, or at age 70. I can understand why that letter confused you. But again, it really was just protecting your rights to those past benefits. But you don't want them, so just ignore that letter you got.

Q: I recently started my Social Security at my full retirement age. I have a neighbor who is about the same age, and he did the same thing. But he got a retroactive benefit check. He said it was because he first called Social Security about four months ago and they used that date as his starting month. I also called Social Security about three months ago with some general questions, but I didn't get any back pay. How come?

A: I really am not sure. But here is an educated guess. I'll bet when your neighbor called, he expressed more of an interest in filing for benefits, and as part of that process gave the SSA rep his name and Social Security number. And that set this whole protective filing date process in motion. On the other hand, when you called, I have a hunch you just asked some questions and never expressed an interest in filing for benefits. So, you never gave them your name and SSN and no record was made of the call and no protective filing date was established.

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If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has a book with all the answers. It's called "Social Security: Simple and Smart." You can find the book at www.creators.com/books. Or look for it on Amazon or other book outlets. 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.

 

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