Did you know that more than 2,700 rules govern your Social Security benefits? To help those who have to interpret the rules, there are thousands of explanations in the agency’s Program Operations Manual System (POMS). Luckily, a significant number of those rules probably don’t apply to you, but how do you even have a fighting chance of interpreting all of these rules on your own? The easy answer is to contact the Social Security office. The not-so-easy answer is that you have to know where to go and whom to ask. Thankfully, there are three ways for you to contact the Social Security Administration (SSA). (For more, see 10 Common Questions About Social Security.)
Unlike some other government websites, (we’re looking at you, IRS) the Social Security website is easy to use, is written in plain English and offers nearly all of the services you need. You can view a list of online services offered by visiting the “What You Can Do Online” page. You’ll notice that you can apply for benefits, get a copy of your statement, appeal a decision by Social Security officials, and get estimates of your future benefits and Medicare services, among other things. Each heading on this page has a dropdown menu that points you in the right direction based on your specific need.
Just like the SSA’s offices, the website has certain hours of operation during which you can conduct business. Unless you’re trying to apply for benefits between 1:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. Monday through Friday, before 5:00 a.m. on Saturday or 8:00 a.m. on Sunday, the operational hours probably won’t affect you. For more information, see Understanding the Social Security Website and Using the Social Security Website to Get Answers.
The website is a great place to start, but finding the information you’re looking for isn’t always as easy as it sounds, so your next step might be to call. Since Social Security doesn’t publish the phone numbers of local offices, you have to call the main number at 1-800-772-1213. Even if you have the number of your local office, you want to start with the SSA’s automated system anyway.
If you call, you can perform many services, including requesting a benefit verification letter and/or statement of your benefits, inquiring about the status of a claim, applying for a replacement card, finding the address of your local office and conducting some business related to Medicare.
If the automated system isn’t enough, you can speak to a representative between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. Social Security advises calling Wednesday, Thursday or Friday to cut down on your hold time.
If you can’t resolve your problem or find the information you need on the website or over the phone, you can go to one of the field offices. But be warned: It probably won’t be fun. You can schedule an appointment, though it could take weeks or more than a month to get one. Heading to the office is an option, but you’ll probably wait more than a couple of hours to be seen. Some offices report lines out the door.
There’s also the issue of staffing. Due to budget cuts to the SSA, there are fewer workers for an increasing amount of applicants. Therefore, don’t expect them to take as in-depth a look at your case as a financial planner would. Not only are SSA employees extremely busy, they cannot offer advice on how to maximize your benefits. (For more, see The Risk of Offering Social Security Advice.)
Furthermore, some Social Security experts advise visiting multiple field offices in order to ensure that you’re getting the most out of your benefits. One worker may misinterpret the rules and deny you benefits for which you’re eligible, so seeking multiple benefit estimates can help you find the best deal – kind of like shopping for a new car. (For more, see Top Tips for Maximizing Social Security.)
The Bottom Line
Most experts say to avoid the Social Security office as much as you can. The website allows you to do just about everything, and if you want good advice on how to maximize your benefits, the local Social Security Administration office can’t help you anyway. Instead, try AARP’s website, or SSAnalyze. There are also financial planners and other Social Security experts who can help you figure out the best way to structure your benefits.