The Social Security horror stories just keep piling up

Among all of Social Security's arcane rules, secrets, and claiming surprises, the greatest personal revelation to me has been that the agency often gives out confusing, inconsistent, and even flat-out wrong information. Color me naïve, but when I began research for our book, I assumed the Social Security Administration (SSA) was the place to go for accurate information.

I know better now, and so should you. I am not saying the SSA can't be trusted. But I am very much saying that you need to know enough about the rules to look out for yourself and to question what you're told. If you disagree with the way your claim is processed or other information you get from the agency, you absolutely should stick to your guns and stand up for yourself.

Since the first edition of "Get What's Yours" was published in early 2015, I and co-authors, economist Larry Kotlikoff and PBS economics correspondent Paul Solman, have been inundated with questions, problems, and flat-out horror stories from not only the public but also financial professionals and even more than a few brave souls who work for Social Security.

Here are several major areas where bright yellow caution signs have been erected in dealing with Social Security.

Meeting with representatives

The agency invites people to make in-person appointments but this word doesn't always make it out to the actual field offices where such meetings are supposed to take place.

People tell us some offices refuse to even schedule meetings, while the waiting list at others can be several weeks long. If you run into this issue, visit the "Get What's Yours" website and tell us about it. We will hound the SSA on your behalf.

Filling out online claims applications

Social Security has been pushing people to do as much business with the agency online as possible. Staffing and office-hour cutbacks in recent years have made online transactions its most cost-effective way to meet growing public demand for service.

Trying to find helpful tools to navigate these online forms, however, is another matter. I have tried without success to get the agency to sit down with me and explain how its various online applications work.

One issue is that the information you enter on one screen may dynamically shape the contents of the next screen you see. This diversity of claiming options and response choices can be confusing and insufficient to reflect the needs of many people. If you must file online, and this often is the only feasible option, make sure you make print-outs of the process so that you later can document what you've done if problems arise.

The new rules

We have just come out with a new edition of our book, necessitated by the sudden enactment of new Social Security rules last fall. Much has been written and said about these rules. However, it's a safe bet there will be continued confusion about them. Briefly, anyone turning 66 before April 29 had the right to file-and-suspend by that date. If you are one of these fortunate people, you will continue to enjoy some claiming rights that are no longer available.

Also, if you were at least 62 as of last January 2, you are grandfathered under the new rules and will retain the ability to file a restricted application for just your spousal benefit, while deferring your own retirement benefit and letting it grow for up to four years. If either of these situations applies to you, make sure you know your claiming rights. And don't let Social Security deny you those rights.

Suspending benefits

Once you've reached what is called full retirement age, you have the right to suspend your benefits and enjoy delayed retirement credits that will increase your benefit at the rate of 8 percent a year. The new rules do not take away this right, although we've heard tales from people who tell us about SSA representatives who think they do.

What is changed, and it's a very big change, is that anyone who suspends any type of benefit is no longer able to receive another Social Security benefit. Nor is anyone else able to claim a benefit based on the record of someone whose own benefit has been suspended.

The list goes on, but by now I hope you've seen the wisdom of learning about your Social Security claiming options before you file a claim for benefits. Please remember that your decisions likely will have an impact on you, and possibly other family members, for the rest of your life and perhaps theirs as well.

Commentary by Philip Moeller, a journalist and co-author of "Get What's Yours – the Revised Secrets to Maxing Out YourSocial Security Benefits," fully updated to reflect the newSocial Security laws. Follow him on Twitter @PhilMoeller.

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