My wife has a small plaque on the wall of her art studio. She is a fiber artist who paints quilted landscapes and something called temari, which is decorative Japanese balls of thread. She sells her wares at a local art gallery. If you’d like to see her work, just head over to FiberArtsByBecky.com. Anyway, the plaque she received when we both retired in 2005 reads “Help me! My husband is retired and has no hobbies! “
I was thinking about this plaque when I opened my mailbox today. There were dozens of letters from readers of my column. I probably get hundreds of emails every week from all over the country. And for the most part, I’m not complaining – and my wife is happy. It has become a hobby of mine to reply to these emails. It keeps me away from her hair. My wife can safely work on her little crafts upstairs, and I work on my “hobby” downstairs. (This is part of the secret of a 47-year marriage!)
Notice I said I don’t complain “for the most part.” I enjoy helping people understand Social Security rules and regulations. And I like answering their general questions about the program. But to be honest, I am perplexed when people come to me with questions or problems that I simply cannot help them with.
For example, one of the emails I received today was: “I am getting a little Social Security check and my husband’s benefit is much larger. How do I know if I can get any fringe benefits for enrolling him? “Well, the obvious answer (obvious to me anyway) is to contact the Social Security Administration. Just call them their toll-free number: 800-772-1213.
Another email said, “I am about to turn 62 and want to apply for Social Security. Can you help me with that? “No, I can’t. Again, you must call SSA at 800-772-1213. Or better yet, apply online at their website: SocialSecurity.gov.
Other readers send me long emails, which due to the large volume of mail I receive, I simply don’t have time to decrypt. These long emails usually come in two forms.
One kind comes from readers looking for financial advice. They provide me with their entire work history, family history, income history, and a spouse’s job and income history. They often tell me about all their assets and liabilities. They ask me to help them write retirement plans and tell them when they should apply for Social Security benefits.
I appreciate their thoroughness, but I really only have time to quickly scan their emails, and I almost always tell them, “I’m not doing financial planning. I’m just an old social security pensioner. So all I can do is explain the social security rules. And I just can’t do it in a quick email. So I highly recommend that you spend $ 10 and get my little guide to Social Security called Social Security Simple and Smart. A chapter in this book explains when and how to apply for Social Security. I think he will answer all your questions. “
Another type of long e-mail that I receive from readers is those that rave and rave about some perceived injustice in the social security system. (I received one this week, which was three pages long!) There is really nothing I can do to help these people other than give them a chance to speak up!
Other readers send me emails complaining about the services they have received or are trying to get from the Social Security Administration. Sometimes they tell me they can’t reach SSA’s toll-free service line (800-772-1213). Or they were talking to someone in the SSA and they didn’t like the answer. Or they are trying to solve a problem with their benefits and think it is taking too long to solve. They usually ask me to intervene or “do something” to solve their problem.
But to be honest, there is nothing I can do in such situations. As far as getting 800 help, all I have to offer is patience. You may have to wait a while, but eventually someone will answer the call. As far as interfering in their case, these people should know that I have quit the agency for 16 years now, and I have absolutely no influence over any of them. I just can’t pick up the phone, call some SSA official and say, “Fix this guy’s problem now!” I usually suggest that they ask to speak with the supervisor or manager at the local social security office.
And when talking about working with someone in your local office, I always recommend that you do it. Some people think they are doing smart “climbing to the top” – trying to do business with someone in one of SSA’s regional offices or even their headquarters complex in Baltimore, Maryland. It’s a waste of time. It’s always best to deal with local staff.
To illustrate what I mean, let me share this with you. I worked for many years at SSA headquarters outside Baltimore. About 10 thousand people worked there. And each of these people had some kind of administrative job. They weren’t there to help individual welfare recipients. (Again, this is what the local welfare offices are for.) However, every day people walked into the headquarters building — some of them traveled across the country to do this — and demanded to speak to “someone upstairs.” about my problem. “
These people were ushered into a small office where I believe they thought they were talking to a large headquarters figure. In fact, the office was staffed by representatives from the Randallstown, Maryland welfare office, the closest field office to SSA headquarters. If this Randallstown representative could not handle the situation, the case always returned to the local office in the city where the visitor lived – the place where the person had to go in the first place to solve the problem. (I understand this is not the case at the moment, with many offices partially closed due to COVID-19. So take this long term advice into account when the world is back to normal.)
Or, if you simply cannot get help from the staff or management of your local office, I suggest that you contact your local Congressional representative. There is always someone on their staff who deals with social security issues.
So, to summarize, come to me if you have general questions about social security or if you can summarize your personal problem. (As I said, it really helps if you read my book first.) But if you have business with SSA, you will need to call them at 800-772-1213 or go online at SocialSecurity.gov. And if you have a problem, ask to speak with a manager or contact your local member of Congress.