John was 66 last November when the government changed Social Security law primarily with respect to spousal benefits. John's wife Jean was 64 at that point. The new law grandfathered John and Jean to follow the file and suspend strategy under which John would file for his retirement benefit and suspend its collection. But, due to the new law, John would have to suspend before April 30, 2016. If he did so, Jean would then be able to collect just a spousal benefit between 66 (full retirement age) and 70, let her own retirement benefit grow by 8 percent a year from 66 through 70, and then start taking her own benefit at 70 when it had reached its highest possible value (32 percent higher, after inflation, than at 66). John, in turn, would wait till 70 to restart his retirement benefit.
John and Jean heard something on the radio about the change in the law and they went into their local Social Security office. There they were told that they were grandfathered and didn't need to make any moves until Jean reached 66. That advice was terribly wrong. John was grandfathered to suspend and let Jean collect on his account while letting his own retirement benefit grow but only if he filed for his retirement benefit and also suspended it before April 30, 2016.
In April John heard something about the April 30th deadline, but he didn't think it applied to him because he'd been told that he was grandfathered. But he still tried to contact the system. In May, John finally got in touch with Social Security only to discover that he had been given only half the right information. Yes he had been grandfathered, but only through April 29th and now that it was May, it was too late. He was no longer grandfathered. Yes, he could still file and suspend, but since he would be suspending after April 29, Jean would not be able to collect a spousal benefit off of his work record starting at 66 unless he actually began to take his retirement benefit. But doing so would have lowered John's annual benefit by roughly 16 percent compared to what would have been the case had he filed and suspended on time.
John contacted me and I suggested he contact his members of Congress and also try to file and suspend retroactive to when he went into the local office in November. I copy below John's account of the Social Security hell that he was put through thanks to the incompetence of the first two staff members with whom he met back in November.
The good news is that with the help of his Congressman and perhaps some implicit pressure from me, Social Security finally fixed this problem and did file and suspend John retroactive to before the deadline.
Here's my advice. If you are in John's boat or find yourself in some other Social Security Kafka horror story, pick up the phone and call the government institution that created this bureaucratic nightmare, namely Congress. Specifically, call your Congressman or Congresswoman and your two Senators and ask them to help you cut through Social Security's unbelievable red tape and incompetence. If Congress gets inundated by requests for help with Social Security, it might wake up to the monster it created and fix it or at least give Social Security sufficient funds to properly train its staff and people its offices and phone systems.
Based on my interchanges with John and what he writes below, I figure that fixing Social Security cost him at least two weeks of effort, not to mention many sleepless nights.
I realize these are more than bullet points, but I wanted you to have the supporting information to make an accurate assessment.
November 5, 2015, I visited Lenexa SS office after seeing an internet headline of big changes in SS benefits. Wait time in excess of one hour. Specifically asked whether my wife and I were affected by the impending law regarding file and suspend and spousal benefits. Was told by two agents in collaboration that we were grandfathered in due to our age and we should make an appointment closer to my wife's 66th birthday and they would help us file together.
April 2016, I tried numerous times to reach local office only to get circular phone tree response.
May 17, 2016 Being frustrated not having an appointment, I called the 800 number for SS. That was an awful experience. I could not understand the agent who clearly was not from this country and she could not understand me. I was placed on hold four or five times and when she returned each time she again requested my home address. After almost 45 minutes she told me there were no appointments in Lenexa and she would have someone from that office contact me to establish an appointment.
Early June The outcome of the May 17 telephone conversation was that I received a letter dated May 31 that I was not eligible for Supplemental Security Income and the reason given was I had not applied. Correct, I had not applied for SSI.
June 17 still no contact from Lenexa SS office so I went in person. Wait time in excess of one hour. The agent informed me that I had missed the April 29 filing date and we were no longer eligible for file and suspend. I asked about the November 5th meeting to be sure of the date and was received a verbal acknowledgement that I had been in. There was no recourse, and I or my wife should file.
June 17 I returned to the office waiting about 45 minutes. That agent was trying to be helpful, but recommended my wife apply and I file for spousal benefits under her. This visit I confirmed the November 5 date and asked to be sure there was no mistake in what I was told earlier that day. I returned home and contacted the office of our US Senator, Pat Roberts, and our US Congressman, Keven Yoder. I also sent a copy of the letter I drafted to you and you recommended I go back to SS office and demand to speak to the highest ranking official in the office and provided them a copy of that letter. I sent the letter to our representatives on Monday, June 20.
June 24 I returned to SS office and had a very short wait. The agent told me she was familiar with my case and asked what was different. I asked (demanded) to speak to the highest ranking person, and after several minutes (10 to 15) a very nice and competent person came to the window and introduced herself as the District Manager. I provided her the letter and explained why what was happening was WRONG, as well as that we had been in touch with you.
She listened and said that my members of Congress were very responsive to their constituents' needs. She also said the local office would review my case and reply to the congressman's inquiry which usually takes 30 to 45 days. I asked for the minutes of my November 5, 2015 meeting, but did not get them.
July 1 Local office sent a letter to my Congressman's office and to us which merely regurgitated the law.
July 5 I called my Congressman's office and they told me they had received the July 1 letter and had already replied that they were a Congressman's office and they know what the law is, and asked what SS going to do to make this right. I said thank you.
July 15 Just after noon I received a telephone call from the Social Security District Manager that Washington D.C. had reviewed our case and ruled they would accept my November 5, 2015 date for filing and therefore I was eligible for benefits as of that date. That same afternoon an agent called me and took my file and suspend application over the phone. The next day, Saturday, the same person called my wife and assisted her to file for spousal benefits against my benefit. Actually, they dated my filing for April 1, 2016.
We were SO relieved! As I told you over the phone, the District Manager must have presented us factually and favorably to Washington. We are grateful to her for that. The Congressman's office stood up for us. And you were clearly known and a looming threat. In our minds, those are the three factors leading to a correct decision.
The local office did, in the end, do the right thing. And on July 25, 2016 our first SS payment reached our account and it was for the correct spousal benefit for my wife.
Thank you Larry so much for all your help and support. I am sure countless people across the country feel the same.
All best, John