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Tips on making most of Social Security’s Website

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POSTED June 1, 2012 9:01 p.m.

 

I get lots of email from readers who tell me they have a hard time finding answers to their questions at the Social Security Administration website: www.socialsecurity.gov. Or, I often hear from readers telling me they want to "see something official in black and white" before they will believe whatever I wrote in my column.

I frequently steer both groups of inquirers to the same part of SSA's website. It is the "Publications" section. SSA produces hundreds of pamphlets and fact sheets for the public designed to explain Social Security laws and regulations.

Frankly, I'm kind of partial to that little corner of the website because I used to be SSA's chief editor of all their publications. Of course, I don't think they are quite as good as they were before yours truly hung up his blue editing pencil to retire to the sunny beaches of San Diego about seven years ago! But I believe they still provide the most readable and understandable explanations of Social Security rules that you will find on the web.

To find these publications, go to www.socialsecurity.gov. At the home page, you'll find a box on the left side of the page labeled, "Top Services." One of those services is "Get a publication." Clicking on that link will take you to a page that lists each of the more than 100 publications the agency produces. You can scroll through them one by one. But it would be better to narrow your search by pulling down the "Topic" box. There you will find publications listed under categories such as "Retirement" or "Disability" or "Medicare" and quite a few more.

Some of my favorite publications are:

—Understanding The Benefits (under the Introduction to Social Security section);

—What Every Woman Should Know (under the Introduction to Social Security section);

—Your Retirement Benefit - How It Is Figured (under the Retirement section);

—Special Payments After Retirement (under the Retirement section);

—How Work Affects Your Benefits (under the Work and Earnings section);

—Blue Book - Disability Evaluation Under Social Security (under the Disability section); and

—Understanding Supplemental Security Income (under the Supplemental Security Income section).

Some of my readers aren't content with seeing a pamphlet or fact sheet with an explanation of the rules. They want to see the rules themselves. Many write asking me to cite the specific law that covers a certain Social Security topic. (These are the kind of folks who, when you ask them for the time, will take 30 minutes to tell you how a watch works!) Frankly, I'm not much help to these people. I worked for the Social Security Administration for 32 years and maybe needed to look up an actual law a half dozen times. There are other sources with much better information (which I'll get to in a minute). But if you want to wade through the actual Social Security law, you will find it at SSA's website. At the homepage, look for the box labeled "About Our Agency." Open up the pull-down menu and click on "Program Rules." At the Program Rules homepage, click on "Compilation of Social Security Laws." And if you really find that useful, maybe you will want to apply for a job with SSA!

A much better place to find explanations of Social Security rules and regulations is something called the Programs Operations Manual System, or POMS. This is essentially the "bible" that all Social Security employees use when they need to verify an agency rule or policy. It's easy to find POMS. Follow the instructions in the prior paragraph for getting to the Social Security law. When you get to the Program Rules homepage, scroll down to the section labeled "Employee Operating Instructions" and then click on "Program Operations Manual System."

That's the good news: POMS is easy to find. Now here's the bad news — it won't be so easy to find the specific rule you are looking for. The Social Security program is very extensive and extremely complicated. There are thousands and thousands of rules and policies, and every one of those has dozens of sub-rules and sub-policies designed to cover the myriad of possibilities involved in the eligibility factors for the many kinds of Social Security benefits. Before POMS was digitized, this Social Security "bible" filled up about 15 three-inch binders in a bookcase in my office.

You are welcome to wade through the law or POMS to find a specific ruling, but I strongly recommend you settle for one of the fact sheets or pamphlets if you really need to see something in black and white.

Finally, here are two other sources of fascinating Social Security information. At the pull down menu in the "About Our Agency" box, click on "Actuarial Resources" or "Research, Statistics, and Policy Analysis." The former will take you to many actuarial studies and findings, including the annual report of the Social Security Board of Trustees. The latter will lead you to many fascinating publications, including my favorite: "The Annual Statistical Supplement." This extensive book will give you a breakdown of all Social Security beneficiaries and payments in hundreds of different categories.

 

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