Author Topic: Social Security benefit dispute  (Read 1637 times)

FIRE 20/20

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Social Security benefit dispute
« on: October 25, 2019, 02:03:50 PM »
My mom has been receiving a Social Security Retirement benefit for a few years.  Today she received a letter saying that they made a mistake in determining her benefit and it will be reduced from ~$1,100 to ~$700.  I don't have all the details yet, but she suspects that something happened where they are now paying her earned benefit rather than the benefit she gets from being married (~20 years) to my father.  She was a stay at home mom and he worked as a physician, so obviously his benefit will be significantly higher than hers.  She has not remarried. 

Does anyone have any advice for this situation?  I plan to help her figure this out and if necessary will help with the appeal. I have a few specific questions, but here's where I plan to start.  First, she doesn't have an online account with SSA.gov, so I asked her to set that up.  I hope that she can log in and see the details of her earnings and possibly his, and maybe we can see if they have his account linked in some way to hers.  I've never logged in so I don't know what if anything they have online.  Second, I plan to work with my dad to get his estimated benefit.  If I have that I should be able to calculate her benefit (half of his, and I think she started claiming at age 62).  With his and her information I should be able to calculate the benefit she should be getting.  If the new benefit is correct then that will really suck, but we'll make it work.  If she should be getting the higher amount then we'll need to start the appeals process. 

Is the above plan correct, at least for the first few steps?  If we find she should get the higher benefit, then:

Do we need to hire a lawyer?  She doesn't have much income or any significant assets, but if necessary I could pay for a lawyer for her. 
Are there any organizations that help low income senior citizens with this type of appeal? 
Which type of appeal (Case Review, Informal Conference, Formal Conference) should we request?  Obviously if we hire a lawyer they'll help make this decision, but does anyone here have any advice? 

Any and all help would be greatly appreciated!

terran

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Re: Social Security benefit dispute
« Reply #1 on: October 25, 2019, 02:08:43 PM »
It seems to me that talking to Security and finding out what happened is the first step. Once you know what the problem is you'll have a much better understanding of what, if anything, can be done and if you need a lawyer.

I very much doubt she'll be able to see your dad's earnings record. I can't see my wife's record in my account.

spartana

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Re: Social Security benefit dispute
« Reply #2 on: October 25, 2019, 02:53:39 PM »
did your mom or dad have a public sector job that she (or your dad) earned a pension at? If so they may be calculating the amount she is entitled to including the WEP (windfall elimination provision) or GPO (Government Offset Provision) and they're just catching it now.  There is a thread around here about it somewhere.

FIRE 20/20

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Re: Social Security benefit dispute
« Reply #3 on: October 25, 2019, 03:25:23 PM »
Thanks for the quick responses.  @terran , that's good information.  Unfortunately we haven't been able to get through to the S.S. office (5 hour in-person wait times, just received the letter today, etc.).  I may need her to just sit on the phone to find out what happened.  The letter gives zero information, other than that the benefit was cut and what form to fill out to challenge the decision.  It's frustrating that they don't give a reason or explanation.  Thanks for the information on what you can/can't see online.

@spartana , neither one had a public sector job.  My mom worked in a variety of offices, but she earned little enough that half of my dad's S.S. will be larger than her full payment.  He was a physician at a private practice.  I'll look into the WEP and GPO provisions, but at first glance I don't think either apply. 

After doing some rough back of the envelope calculations, it really seems like they're saying she doesn't qualify for 1/2 of my dad's benefit (~$2,200 /2 =$1,100) and does qualify for hers (low income, not many working years ~$700).  She didn't remarry, so I don't think that should be right.  But that's just a guess at the moment.  I hope to hear from my dad soon - if he can confirm that half of his payment is in the ballpark of $1,100 then we should be able to resolve this pretty quickly and easily (ha!). 

bogart

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Re: Social Security benefit dispute
« Reply #4 on: October 25, 2019, 03:25:54 PM »
I have no wisdom to share but just wanted to say I'm sorry you and your mom are dealing with it, and to wish you luck in getting it (favorably) resolved.

spartana

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Re: Social Security benefit dispute
« Reply #5 on: October 25, 2019, 04:17:52 PM »
My understanding of how spousal SS work is that your Mom would get her full benefit and then on top of that amount they would add a spousal benefit equal to what she would get if only receiving a benefit based on your dad's amount.

So if she would be entitled to $700 on your Dad's benefit amount as spousal SS (1/2 of his benefit) and a $400 benefit on her own work record,  they don't give you $1100 but $700 - Mom benefit of $400 plus an additional $300 spousal benefit to make up the difference. So its not 100% of moms plus 50% of dads. Its 100% of moms plus an extra amount from dads to bring it up to what she'd earn on dads record alone. Of course I may be wrong

ETA after reading your post above I think she should get $1100 - $700 based on her work record and an additional spousal benefit of $400 to bring it up to 1/2 dads benefit. But if she is older than your dad or taking SS early 62) then those amounts would be reduced.

Also SS will do a call back and you don't need to sit on.the.phone for hours. My mom did this and they just made a phone appoint and called her back then. Also SS will know your Dads exact benefit amount so you don't need to get the info from him.
« Last Edit: October 25, 2019, 04:31:14 PM by spartana »

Cranky

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Re: Social Security benefit dispute
« Reply #6 on: October 25, 2019, 04:24:25 PM »
If she has trouble setting up an online account - it can be trickier than you think. My dh, who has a PhD, gave up and went to the SS office and waited in line to talk to someone.

FIRE 20/20

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Re: Social Security benefit dispute
« Reply #7 on: October 25, 2019, 05:13:33 PM »
My understanding of how spousal SS work is that your Mom would get her full benefit and then on top of that amount they would add a spousal benefit equal to what she would get if only receiving a benefit based on your dad's amount.

So if she would be entitled to $700 on your Dad's benefit amount as spousal SS (1/2 of his benefit) and a $400 benefit on her own work record,  they don't give you $1100 but $700 - Mom benefit of $400 plus an additional $300 spousal benefit to make up the difference. So its not 100% of moms plus 50% of dads. Its 100% of moms plus an extra amount from dads to bring it up to what she'd earn on dads record alone. Of course I may be wrong

ETA after reading your post above I think she should get $1100 - $700 based on her work record and an additional spousal benefit of $400 to bring it up to 1/2 dads benefit. But if she is older than your dad or taking SS early 62) then those amounts would be reduced.

Also SS will do a call back and you don't need to sit on.the.phone for hours. My mom did this and they just made a phone appoint and called her back then. Also SS will know your Dads exact benefit amount so you don't need to get the info from him.

Thanks again.  I think your update is what I thought.  I think her full benefit is ~$700 at age 62 (not sure about this).  I think his benefit is ~$2200 at age 62.  I think that, ultimately, she should end up with 1/2 of his benefit, or ~$1100.  But I am waiting for my dad to send his information, and I should have that tomorrow morning.  He just needs to dig out his latest statement. 

The only fortunate thing here is that they have a very cordial relationship and my dad is eager (and very capable) of helping, so I don't have to fight him to get information. 

secondcor521

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Re: Social Security benefit dispute
« Reply #8 on: October 25, 2019, 10:30:31 PM »
The phrase you probably want to use is "divorced spousal benefit", which it sounds like she probably qualifies for.

Read details here from the source:

https://www.ssa.gov/planners/retire/divspouse.html

It may be that SS has decided that she doesn't qualify for divorced spousal benefits for some reason.  Or if your Mom was born before January 2, 1954, there could be other possibilities.

But I agree that the best thing to do is to talk to SS directly and find out what they have determined and why.  The people there are usually very helpful and knowledgeable, if overworked.  I wouldn't bother with a lawyer unless they completely stymie you (and I doubt you'll get to that point).

ETA:  I am also divorced and can confirm that the only information you can see online is your own earnings record and your own projected benefits.  I can't see anything about my ex (and don't need to in my particular case).
« Last Edit: October 25, 2019, 10:35:29 PM by secondcor521 »

FIRE 20/20

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Re: Social Security benefit dispute
« Reply #9 on: November 01, 2019, 02:24:58 PM »
Resolved!

There's a longer story here, but in short we call SSA and found out there were 2 letters sent out but one never arrived.  That was the one with the important information.  Apparently during a review they found she had been underpaid by a total of $54 over 5 years.  She will be getting a check for that $54 this month to make up for the underpayment.  They changed her benefits going forward to pay the extra $0.80 (or whatever) each month to reflect that.  That's the change.  The letter that didn't arrive has the full details of her "divorced spousal benefit", and that had the amount that she expected to see. 

So in the end it was nothing to worry about, and we would have known that if one of the letters hadn't been lost in the mail.  When the reprinted letter arrived it laid everything out relatively clearly. 

It's really frustrating that we panicked because the letter that did arrive apparently just showed her benefit rather than the divorced spousal benefit so it didn't have the full story.  It really looked like she was going to get an incorrect reduced benefit, but aside from the panic and frustration everything worked out in the end. 

mistymoney

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Re: Social Security benefit dispute
« Reply #10 on: November 02, 2019, 07:48:27 AM »
glad it worked out at least!

myrrh

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Re: Social Security benefit dispute
« Reply #11 on: November 04, 2019, 10:16:58 AM »
It's too bad that SSA didn't save themselves a stamp and put both letters in the same envelope. Then it would have been either an "ignorance is bliss" situation or "cool, an extra $54 dollars explained" situation. But I'm glad it was eventually resolved.