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Simple questions with not so simple answers
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Q. I enjoy reading your column, but I must complain that sometimes you are too long winded in your answers. Why can't you answer a simple question with a simple answer?

A. I constantly struggle with this issue. Of course, I could give "quick and dirty" answers to most of the questions I get. My record is seven questions answered in one column — and that's pretty amazing considering the limited column space I have!

But every time I give a "quick and dirty" answer, I feel ... well ... dirty! I feel I've cheated my readers out of a thorough explanation of whatever Social Security topic I'm trying to explain. As I frequently point out in this column, Social Security can be a very complicated program with so many "ifs, ands or buts" associated with almost every situation. And I feel obliged to cover as many of those variables as possible to help folks understand the program.

Here is an example. I recently got an email from a reader who said he is turning 62 and is planning to file for Social Security. He asked what evidence the Social Security Administration needed to verify his age.

The "quick and dirty" answer would have been "a birth certificate." I guess that would have satisfied those readers seeking brevity: a simple three-word answer to a simple question. But frankly, I'd be doing my readers a disservice with that response.

I would have been more accurate to add the following clarification: "You will need a certified copy of your birth certificate that was recorded before your fifth birthday." Now I'm up to a 17-word answer.

But even that's not good enough, because Social Security rules say a religious record of birth is also acceptable proof of your age. So my answer now is: "You will need a certified copy of your birth certificate or a religious record of your birth that was recorded before your fifth birthday." (24 words!)

"But wait, there's more!" (As the late night ads on TV say.) I've learned over the last 40 years that many people have trouble with that phrase: "a certified copy." For example, I'm frequently asked if that means a photocopy that has been signed by a notary. So to my already 24-word response, I usually like to add something like this: "A certified copy is a copy of your birth or baptismal record that has been 'certified' by the custodian of the record. That almost always means the copy has a raised or embossed seal on it that has been signed by an official from the office that keeps the record." Gosh, that adds 50 more words, giving me a 74-word answer to that simple question!

But guess what? There are lots of folks out there for whom no birth or baptismal certificate was ever recorded. I certainly can't ignore them with my answer. So I usually like to give a better explanation of Social Security's policies regarding proof of age documentation. Therefore, I would add the following information.

"The Social Security Administration essentially follows this philosophy when it comes to proof of age: the earliest record of your birth is the best record of your birth. If you don't have a birth or baptismal certificate that was recorded before the age of five, they will ask you to provide the earliest record of your birth that is available. For example, that might be an old school record. It might be a record of a census that was taken when you were young and still living with your parents. SSA has established procedures for obtaining such records, and they will help you get the proof of age documentation that you need."

Wow! That added another whole paragraph and another 112 words. My "simple" answer is now up to 186 words and almost half of my column space.

And here's another twist. More than a few of my readers weren't born in the United States. Their birth was recorded in a foreign land. What kind of birth record do they need to provide? Many think their passport is enough. But it's usually not. Once again, SSA rules say they have to try to get the earliest record of their birth. So if a birth certificate exists, even though it might be in England or Germany or Mexico, you have to provide a certified copy of that record. And if it needs translating, that's OK. SSA has a staff of translators who will examine your foreign birth certificate.

I've stopped counting words to my "simple answer to a simple question." But I hope my readers get an idea of what I'm talking about. Sometimes a "quick and dirty" response is just a little too quick — and a little too dirty. Clarification if often needed.