Dear Rusty: I am trying to help a good friend of mine who lives in Indiana and is 80 years old. I am very concerned as he’s not now collecting SS for some reason, and I have no idea why. Is there any reason that you know of that would keep him from getting his benefits? Is there maybe something he might have done to keep him from getting his money? He worked his whole life, is a retired electrician and was a long-time member of the Electricians’ Union. I’m not sure if he knows how to apply for his benefits, but he’s having a hard time making ends meet and could definitely use the extra money. He told me that an organization has offered to help him, but it will cost $7,500 and there is no guarantee they can get it for him. He can’t afford to pay that kind of money only to be told there is nothing they can do for him. I’m hoping you can give me some insight. Signed: Faithful Friend
Dear Faithful Friend: If your friend has, as you say, worked and contributed to Social Security via FICA payroll taxes all his life, then he should be eligible to collect Social Security benefits. It only takes 40 quarters of credit (about 10 years of earnings) to be eligible for SS, so he should certainly be eligible if he paid SS FICA taxes for enough years.
Are there reasons why he might not be collecting? Sure, but they’re not common, and here are a few:
• Social Security benefits are generally exempt from garnishing, except for certain types of situations. Any U.S. government agency (such as the IRS if he owes back taxes) can garnish his SS benefit if he owes them money. His SS can also be garnished for unpaid alimony or child support. But usually such garnishment means only reducing his SS benefit, not completely eliminating it.
• If he were collecting Social Security at one time, but SS later found that he had been overpaid for any reason, they could withhold his benefits until they recovered the overpayment. Sometimes, the actions of someone else (e.g., a former spouse) can cause him to be liable for an overpayment, but SS would have sent him a letter informing him of the overpayment and giving him an opportunity to appeal it. In any case, SS would only withhold benefits until the overpayment was fully recovered.
• Social Security benefits are not automatically awarded. If your friend simply neglected to apply for benefits when he was eligible, SS wouldn’t sign him up automatically, regardless of his age. He will simply not get benefits unless he applies for them.
Your friend shouldn’t pay anyone to find out if he’s eligible for Social Security benefits. The answer is simply a phone call away by contacting the Social Security Administration, either at the national number (1.800.772.1213) or by contacting his local SS office (the local contact information is at www.ssa.gov/locator). Generally, this type of transaction can be accomplished over the phone. He should call Social Security and tell them he wishes to apply for “Social Security Retirement Benefits.” Once they have his Social Security Number they can tell immediately if he is eligible for benefits and, if he is, he should ask for six months retroactive benefits (SS will pay up to six months retroactively).
If your friend cannot, for any reason, contact Social Security himself to discuss his situation, he can appoint someone (such as you) to represent him in these matters. Here is a link to Social Security’s rules on having someone represent him: www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10075.pdf. You are, indeed, a good and faithful friend.
The information presented in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The opinions and interpretations expressed in this article are the viewpoints of the Association of Mature American Citizens Foundation’s Social Security Advisory staff. To submit a question, contact the Foundation at firstname.lastname@example.org.