Social Security Matters: How misinformation leads to lost Social Security benefits

Dear Rusty: I am 64, a widow and I’m hopping mad! I lost my husband a while ago and went to Social Security to apply for widow’s benefits. That all went okay and I’m getting my benefit, but I just found out that I could have avoided a cut to my widow’s benefit and maybe applied only for my own retirement benefit and let the widow’s benefit grow until I reached 66 when it wouldn’t be cut. To make matters worse, they never explained that I’d be applying for both my own Social Security and my widow’s benefit, so my Social Security payment now is made up of both and they’re both reduced because I took them early. If I had waited until I was 70 to take my own benefit, it would have been more than my widow’s benefit. I feel that because they never told me my options, especially when I was grieving the loss of my husband, that it’s their fault that I’m losing money. What can I do? Signed: Hopping Mad

Dear Hopping Mad: It looks as though you were caught in the same miscommunication web that Social Security’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) recently investigated and found that Social Security Administration (SSA) staff had often misinformed or failed to explain all available options to those applying for survivor’s benefits. That, in turn, has been responsible for a lot of “dually-entitled” people getting less than they’re truly entitled to. Thanks to a savvy SSA whistleblower, the OIG investigated the allegations and found that those who were entitled to both Social Security retirement benefits and survivor’s benefits were often not told that they could apply for either benefit and allow the other to grow to its maximum amount. In your case, you could have simply waited to apply for your widow’s benefit until it reached maximum at your full retirement age (FRA); or, if you needed the money, applied for your own reduced retirement benefit first and allowed your survivor’s benefit to grow to its maximum at your FRA and get that for the rest of your life; or you could have taken the reduced survivor’s benefit only and allowed your own retirement benefit to grow until it reached its maximum at age 70. In other words, you could have restricted your application to either one of those benefits and allowed the other to grow to its maximum amount (Social Security’s “deemed filing” rule doesn’t apply to survivor’s). That you are now receiving reduced benefits with no option to delay either one is, it would seem, a result of a failure by the SSA to inform you of your options, exactly as the OIG found in its investigation.

I believe you have a strong case to challenge the SSA on your application choice due to them not informing you of the alternatives available to you. You can initiate this challenge by writing them a letter explaining that you would have made a different choice had you been told the alternatives available to you and request a hearing to resolve this issue. You will need to be specific about the who/when/where aspects of your original application, and you should be very clear about which other option you would have selected had you known – to either defer your widow’s benefit until it grew to maximum at your FRA, or to take your widow’s benefit and defer your Social Security retirement benefit until you are 70. In any case, you should not have to suffer the financial consequences of the SSA’s failure to let you know that you had alternatives as a survivor.

For more on how to file a claim in writing due to the SSA’s failure to advise you of your options, go to: https://www.ssa.gov/OP_Home/cfr20/416/416-0351.htm and review Section (f) Claim for benefits based on misinformation.

The information presented in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The opinions and interpretations expressed are the viewpoints of the AMAC Foundation’s Social Security Advisory staff, trained and accredited under the National Social Security Advisors program of the National Social Security Association, LLC (NSSA). NSSA, the AMAC Foundation, and the Foundation’s Social Security Advisors are not affiliated with or endorsed by the United States Government, the Social Security Administration, or any other state government. Furthermore, the AMAC Foundation and its staff do not provide legal or accounting services. The Foundation welcomes questions from readers regarding Social Security issues. ssadvisor@amacfoundation.org, or visit the Foundation’s website at www.amacfoundation.org.