Never Trust What Social Security Says -- Another Horrific Horror Story

Jun 1 2016 - 9:15am

I recently applied to start my Social Security on the month of my 70th birthday in September of this year. I was contacted yesterday by a SS agent and asked if I would like to receive my surviving spouse benefits until that time. I was taken aback, as I lost my husband about 15 years ago and when I inquired if I would be eligible for any spouse benefit, I was told no….just plain no….not that I would be eligible at a later time. The agent who contacted me yesterday said I would be eligible for 6 months retroactive benefits….do I have any recourse for further benefits due to the information provided that I would not be eligible for any of his benefits…certainly, had I not been misinformed, I would have applied for benefits….any light you can shed on the subject will be most appreciated.

best, Mary

Dear Mary,

I have heard of many many cases of Social Security malfeasance, malpractice, call it what you will, and you appear to be yet another victim of those practices. Indeed, you may have been defrauded, whether intentionally or not, out of 10 years of widows benefits as you could have started collecting them beginning at age 60. The earnings test would have applied, so had you been earning too much between 60 and when you turned 66 (your full retirement age), your widows benefit would have begun at 66, not 60. But in this case it would not have been reduced. So you either lost 10 years of reduced widows benefits or 4 years of unreduced widows benefits. Indeed, if you were disabled, you could have lost 15 years of disabled widows benefits.

Furthermore, you best strategy may have been to take your own retirement benefit at 62 and your widows benefit at 66 or somewhat before 66 if your former spouse had taken his retirement benefit early.

Now you will be receiving your own retirement benefit starting at 70 and your widows benefit will be your excess widows benefits from that point on. (You should file for your widows benefit 6 months retroactive, but only for your widows benefit.) Your excess widows benefit will be zero if your own retirement benefit exceeds your widows benefit.

How much did you lose from listening to Social Security? Well, if your age-60 reduced widows benefit was $1,000 and you were able to collect it in full (The earnings test didn't apply because you didn't earn too much.), you lost $12,000 a year for 10 years or $120,000 measured in today's dollars. Indeed, we should accumulate this loss up at a real interest rate (the Treasury Inflation Protected Securities rate is the right one to use) since you could have invested that money. So the right figure is probably closer to $140,000.

Now do you have a claim against Social Security? If you have any documentation of calling the office or going into the office and can verify what they told you, you might. I'm not a Social Security lawyer. But, here's the terrible rub. Social Security has, it seems, no obligation to tell you anything about the future. Fifteen years ago you were age about 55, so at that time you were too young to collect widows benefits. Hence, what they told you on the day you contacted them was true on that day. But what they tell you on one day may not hold for the day after.

My advice to everyone is never ever ask Social Security a question. In my now very long experience, the answers are far too often either 100 percent wrong or mostly wrong or, as in your case, incomplete and misleading.

This is why I wrote my co-authored book, Get What's Yours -- the Revised Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security, and why I developed with colleagues at my company our $40 software program -- Maximize My Social Security, which we market at Everyone who reads the book and runs the software (and we can run it for you if you are put off by computers), will know what to tell, not ask Social Security to do and also know when to file for particular benefits.

It makes me sick to my stomach to tell you this, but unless you have a tape recording of what you were told or some other documentation, you will have no way to prove you were misled. And even if you do have documentation, Social Security will claim they were under no obligation to explain what benefits you are eligible for in the future. Finally, they will tell you that when you reached age 60 and they knew you could start collecting widows benefits, they were under no legal obligation to tell you that you were so eligible.

With Social Security, the nastiest gotcha of all is Use It Or Lose It.

Again, very very sorry to have had to write you with this information.

Yours, Larry