Did you know that more than 2,700 rules govern your Social Security benefits? Luckily, a significant number of those rules probably don’t apply to you—but how do you have a chance of interpreting all these rules on your own when there are thousands of explanations in the agency’s Program Operations Manual System (POMS)?
The easy answer is to contact the Social Security Administration (SSA). Yes, we know what sort of negative connotations the idea of communicating with a government agency conjures up. Thankfully, there are usually three ways to contact Social Security to get info and solve issues.
- If you have a question, you can contact the Social Security Administration in three ways: online, by phone, and in person.
- Social Security personnel can explain rules and analyze your eligibility for benefits, but don't expect them to help you strategize about the best ways to collect your benefits.
- Since Social Security doesn’t publish the phone numbers of most local offices, you may have to call the main number at 1-800-772-1213.
- Visiting a Social Security office should be a last resort, as there are fewer workers for an increasing number of applicants. What's more, during the coronavirus pandemic, Social Security offices have been closed to the public until further notice.
On March 17, 2020, due to the coronavirus outbreak, Social Security offices were closed to the public until further notice. The best option in the interim is to go online for answers.
When you visit the Social Security website, an orange bar at the top of the home page announces "Coronavirus (COVID-19) Updates." Clicking on it takes you to a page of FAQs and the option to subscribe for further updates. Scroll down and you'll find information about what you can do online—including filing a claim for retirement, disability, or Medicare benefits; setting up or changing direct deposit; checking an application status; and much more. Reassuringly, SSA is extending deadlines for documentation "wherever possible." You can also find out which activities are being tabled during the pandemic—such as not starting or completing any current medical continuing disability reviews and suspending the processing and collection of overpayments.
This page also spells out what be done by phone, currently your only other option for getting issues resolved or questions answered—either by calling your local field office (accessed via a Field Office Locator) or the national 800 number (1-800-772-1213).
Read more below about reaching Social Security online, by phone, or—at a later date—in person.
Inspector General Gail S. Ennis has warned that scammers are already at work, sending fraudulent letters through the mail that threaten suspension of Social Security benefits due to COVID-19-related office closures. Recipients are directed to call a number that may mislead beneficiaries to provide personal information or payment via gift cards and other schemes. The Social Security Administration will not suspend or discontinue benefits because its offices are closed to the public for in-person service.
Contacting Social Security Online
Unlike some other government websites (the IRS, for one), the Social Security website is easy to use for those who speak English, and it offers nearly all of the services you need. You can view a list of the online services 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 drop-down menu that points you in the right direction based on your specific needs.
The Social Security Administration does provide interpreters free of charge. You can call 800-772-1213 to speak with an interpreter who speaks Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, Farsi, French, Greek, Haitian Creole, Hmong, Italian, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Tagalog, or Vietnamese. You can also schedule in-person appointments, during which time the Social Security Administration office will arrange for an interpreter.
Just like the SSA’s offices, the website has certain hours of operation during which you can conduct business. But take heart: If not 24/7, the hours are pretty extensive 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. or after 11:00 p.m. on Saturday, or before 8:00 a.m. or after 11:30 p.m. on Sunday, the operational hours probably won’t affect you.
Contacting Social Security by Phone
The website is a great place to start, but sometimes the information provided may not seem to address your situation or answer your particular question. So your next step might be to call. Since Social Security doesn’t publish the phone numbers of most local offices, you likely have to call the main number at 1-800-772-1213. Even if you have the number of your local office, you'll probably want to start with the SSA’s automated system.
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.
Social Security advises calling on Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday to cut down on your hold time.
If the automated system isn’t enough, you can speak to a representative between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Contacting Social Security in Person
When Social Security offices are reopened, 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 (the website offers a Social Security Office Locator, which works via zip code). In some cases—if you need to request a Social Security card or update certain kinds of personal information—you may have to visit an office.
But be forewarned: It probably won’t be fun. You can schedule an appointment, though it could take weeks or more than a month to get one. Just 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.
Staffing is an issue. Due to budget cuts to the SSA, there are fewer workers for an increasing number of applicants. And don’t expect them to take an in-depth look at your situation the way a financial planner would. Not only are SSA employees extremely busy, but they also cannot offer advice on how to maximize your benefits.
The number of states (plus Washington, D.C.) whose residents can request a replacement Social Security card online.
Source: Social Security
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 or other privileges 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.
The Bottom Line
Even under less dire circumstances than the current COVID-19 outbreak, 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're looking for good strategies on how to maximize your benefits, the local Social Security Administration office can’t help you anyway. Instead, try AARP, or consult with a financial planner, estate-planning attorney, or Social Security expert who can help you figure out the best way to structure and maximize your benefits.