Q&A: Social Security’s complex rules

Dear Liz: You recently mentioned that people can’t always trust the information they get from Social Security representatives. I worked for Social Security for 25 years. When I was ready to file for spousal benefits a few years later in another town, the rep I got immediately told me I wasn’t eligible and was not even going to fill out an application. I knew he was wrong but he was adamant. Always, always tell your readers to insist on filing an application no matter what, as that protects their appeal rights. The applicant might be wrong but will receive a formal determination telling them why. I spent 20 minutes educating that rep on what he should have already known. They don’t train them like they used to.

Answer: Social Security rules can be immensely complicated and, as you note, not every Social Security representative understands those rules as well as they should.

Anyone who’s thinking of applying should first educate themselves as much as possible (the latest edition of “Social Security for Dummies” by Jonathan Peterson is an excellent place to start). Consider using Social Security claiming software or getting personalized advice from a fee-only financial planner. Once you’re well informed, you’ll be better able to recognize and avoid bad advice.