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‘I’m getting the wrong amount’ common gripe

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POSTED June 21, 2013 10:45 p.m.

Q: A short while ago, you wrote a column about women who shared complaints about their Social Security benefits while on a cruise. Well, I wish I could afford to take a cruise so I could complain about my Social Security problems. Here is my gripe: Since my ex-husband died three years ago, I don't think I've been getting enough money. We were married for 30 years and got a divorce about 10 years before he died. I never remarried, but he did. He was an architect and made big money. After talking to other women, I think I should be getting more than $2,050 in widow's benefits. Is the fact that he remarried and has another widow lowering the amount I'm getting? Don't tell me to go to my Social Security office for help. That place is a zoo! Can I simply write a letter to Social Security to appeal the fact that I think I am being paid incorrectly?

A: Before I give you some advice, let me tell you this. Based on my 32 years of experience working for the Social Security Administration, and the 15 years I've been writing this column, I can tell you that the number one complaint I hear from people — by far — is this: "I don't think I am getting the right Social Security benefit amount."

And here is a surprise: Not once in the past four decades have I ever heard anyone allege that he or she was getting too much money! I guess that's just human nature. People tend to believe they are being cheated out of something that everyone else is getting.

I think this phenomenon results when senior citizens start talking and comparing government benefit amounts. The person getting less inevitably feels as if he or she has been left holding the short end of the Social Security stick. What they don't understand is that there are literally dozens of variables that determine the amount of a Social Security check: date of birth, earnings history, your age when you filed for benefits, early retirement reductions, late retirement bonuses, etc.

Readers who follow this column know that I am often critical of SSA and the service the organization provides. But I can tell you there is one thing they are very good at: SSA is very careful and very accurate about calculating Social Security benefits. There have been countless studies done by Congress and other oversight agencies concerning the accuracy of Social Security payments. And the studies show that SSA pays the right benefit amount something like 99 percent of the time.

I should clarify that I am talking about the accuracy of the initial calculation of a person's basic Social Security benefit amount. People getting ongoing Social Security checks can be paid incorrectly from time to time. But that's usually because SSA has faulty information. For example, a person who is working and making more than the earnings penalty limit fails to inform the government of his or her income, resulting in benefits being paid that were not due. Those kinds of "overpayments" are common. But the person's basic Social Security benefit amount is still accurate.

So now back to your question. First, I can tell you that your benefit rate is not affected at all by the fact that your ex-husband had a second wife. If she is getting a widow's benefit on his record, it has no impact on what you are getting. Or to put that another way, anything she is due does not offset what is payable to you. And by the same token, anything you are due does not offset what she can get from his account.

Second, it is simply too late to file a legal appeal of your benefit rate. As a general rule, you have 60 days to ask SSA to reconsider any decision they make about your Social Security benefits. In other words, when they sent you an "award letter" three years ago telling you about your eligibility for divorced widow's benefits, you had two months from the date of that letter to ask them to review your widow's computation if you thought the benefit rate was wrong.

As you suggested, you could simply write a letter to SSA asking for an explanation of your benefit rate. But I don't think that will work. Think of it this way: If you had a Sears washing machine that broke down, would you write a letter to Sears asking them to fix it? Of course you wouldn't. You would either call them or visit your local Sears store to seek some help.

And that's what you should do with your Social Security problem. I recommend you contact SSA at 800-772-1213 and see if someone can help you over the phone. If that doesn't work, I suggest you bite the bullet and pay a visit to your local Social Security office. Plan to spend a little time there. Take a book and pack a lunch! If the front desk person can't or won't help you, ask to speak to a supervisor.

As I said, there is a very high probability that you are being paid correctly. But if you're willing to spend one day of your life at the "zoo," at least you will be able to live out the rest of your days knowing that you are getting exactly what you are due from your ex-husband's Social Security account.


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