Is applying for Social Security more complicated than it needs to be?


My mother turned seventy a couple of weeks ago. This means a couple of things:

  • First, she’s reached the age at which she can receive maximum retirement benefits from Social Security.
  • Second, it’s time for her to start taking Required Minimum Distributions from her retirement accounts.

If you’ve been reading Get Rich Slowly for a while, you know that these two routine tasks are less than routine for my family. My mother has fought a long-time battle with mental illness. After a crisis in 2011, my brothers and I realized that she could not live alone. We found a highly-regarded local assisted living facility that specializes in patients with memory issues. (Mom has some sort of cognitive disability that includes memory loss, but which the doctors have been unable to diagnose.)

For the past seven years, Mom has lived at Happy Acres in a comfortable apartment with her cat (Bonnie) and her television. When I see her, I often ask if there’s anything more she needs or wants. She assures me that this is all she needs to be happy.

Mom and Bonnie

At this point, Mom struggles with routine personal hygiene, so there’s no way she can take care of tasks like signing up for Social Security or taking withdrawals from her retirement accounts. As her sons, that’s now our job. (And we’re happy to do it.)

You might think that this process would be easy — but you’d be wrong. I suspect that in most cases, getting retirement benefits started is easy, but it’s much less so in our situation.

A Little Bit of Kafka

At first, my brother Jeff and I thought that setting up Social Security would be simple. He and I both have Power of Attorney. We’re accustomed to this allowing us to breeze through most financial tasks as if we were Mom herself.

In March, about a month before Mom’s birthday, I spent an afternoon at the local Social Security office. I took all of the documentation that I could gather.

I arrived to find the waiting room was packed with other folks applying for benefits. It was standing-room only. Rather than get frustrated, I sighed and resigned myself to waiting. And wait, I did. I waited for two hours before my number was called. (It was all fine, though. I spent the time absorbed in a good book.)

When my turn came, I sat at the desk and talked to the clerk. “I’m here to apply for Social Security benefits for my mother,” I said.

“Is your mother with you?” the clerk asked.

“No,” I said. “But I have Power of Attorney.” I pulled out the paperwork to offer proof.

The clerk waved her hand and shook her head. “The Social Security Administration does not recognize Powers of Attorney,” she told me. “To conduct business on your mother’s behalf, you must be a designated representative, a legal guardian.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“For all practical purposes, it means you probably should make an appointment to bring your mother in with you. That’s going to be the easiest thing to do.”

“Okay,” I said. “But she’s not really going to be able to carry on a conversation or to make an informed decision about anything. Still, let’s make an appointment.”

“Even if she’s not mentally fit, she has to be the one who applies in person,” the clerk said. She clicked at her keyboard, searching for appointment times. “I’m sorry, but we don’t have any appointments available.”

I was puzzled. “Let me get this straight. Mom has to apply in person. To apply in person, we have to make an appointment. But there are no appointments available?”

“Well, there three other options,” the clerk said. “She can do what you did today and wait in the lobby. She can call each morning to see if there are any cancellations. Or she can apply online. However, she has to apply herself. You can’t fill out the application for her.”

I’ll admit that I was both baffled and a little steamed. “She’s not able to fill out the application herself. She’s not capable,” I said. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to have her wait here with me for two hours as a drop-in. And calling the day-of to get an appointment is problematic. It would take roughly three hours from the time I called in order to get her here.”

The clerk shrugged. “I don’t know what to tell you,” she said. “Those are your three options.”

Skirting the Law

When I returned home, I called my brother to explain the situation. “I feel like there’s no way we can get this done,” I said, “unless we fudge things a little.”

“What do you mean?” he said.

“Well, there’s no way for Mom to complete the application hereself, right? Legally, she’s required to. But what if we completed it for her while she’s in the room?”

“I’m okay with that,” Jeff said.

And that’s what we did: Jeff and I sat with Mom and worked through the online Social Security benefits application.

Much of the application asked for standard stuff, such as age, mailing address, and so on. It was easy for us to answer those questions. But some of the questions required sleuthing. To set up Mom’s online Social Security account, for instance, we had to puzzle out a battery of questions drawn from her credit history. (Solution? Just pull a free credit report, which you’re allowed to do three times per year.) To actually complete the benefits application, we needed to figure out important dates regarding her marriage and her work history.

Whenever we reached a question that stumped us, we asked Mom for the answer. She never had the answers, though, so we had to dig through various documents to find the info.

After a couple of hours, we’d finished the application. We asked Mom to type in her name for the digital signature. (Even that was tough for her.) The process was over…or so we thought.

About a week later, we got a letter in the mail from the Social Security Administration. “Thank you for contacting us for an appointment to visit our office,” the letter read. “This is confirmation of the date and time of your appointment.”

“What in the world is this?” Jeff asked me. “We never made an appointment for Mom.”

“I have no idea,” I said. “I thought we’d done everything we need to do at this point. But I’ll tell you what. It sounds like we have a firm date and time for an appointment, so let’s just take it. We may be duplicating our efforts, but that’s okay. I’m willing to sacrifice a few hours of my time just to make sure everything is correct.”

Return to Purgatory

Jeff handled everything with the assisted living facility, arranging for Mom to have an early breakfast, and getting her approved to take a field trip. His wife showed up yesterday morning just to make sure everything went according to plan.

Meanwhile, I left the house at 7:30, stopped by the family box factory to pick up supporting documentation, then headed to Happy Acres to pick up Mom.

When we reached the Social Security office at 8:55, there was already a long line at the door. “There’s no way we’re going to get inside in time for our nine o’clock appointment,” I thought to myself, but it turns out I needn’t have worried. When the office opened, a security guard summoned folks with appointments to the front of the line. Mom and I went inside to meet the clerk who would be conducting the interview.

Our clerk was both friendly and helpful. He was also meticulous and business-like. At first, he directed his questions to Mom (as he should have), but when it became clear that Mom couldn’t answer for herself, he addressed me instead.

“We’ve received your mother’s application for retirement benefits,” the clerk told me. “But she’s also eligible for survivors benefits. That’s what today’s interview is about. We want to get her set up in the system so that she receives everything she’s due.”

The clerk interviewed us for about twenty minutes. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to answer all of his questions because we weren’t prepared for them. When did Dad die? I remember that date very clearly. When were Mom and Dad married? I don’t know off the top of my head and Mom can no longer remember.

“Do you have a copy of their marriage certificate?” the clerk asked. No, we do not. “Ah, you’ll need to get a certified copy and mail it to me in order to complete this process.”

“How do I do that?” I asked.

“You’ll need to contact the Department of Vital Records in whichever state she was married,” he said. “Once you get a certified copy, mail it to me in this envelope. After we have all of the documentation we need, benefits will begin a few weeks later.”

To Be Continued…

Last month during my road trip through the southeastern United States, I stopped to visit my pal Cameron Huddleston in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Huddleston, a personal-finance columnist, has experienced something similar herself. Her mother has Alzheimer’s, so Huddleston has had to learn to manage her money. And, in fact, she just signed a deal to write a book about managing your parents’ money.

“It’s kind of a boring topic, but it’s important,” Huddleston told me. “It’s something that more and more people are wrestling with, especially as lifespans increase and personal finances become more complicated.” She hopes to produce a useful guide to help people like me figure this stuff out. From what we can tell, nothing like this exists right now. It’s like each person in my situation has to re-invent the wheel, to puzzle through the process on our own each time. I’m eager to be the first person to buy Huddleston’s book!

Obviously, my family still has work to do.

From what we can tell, Mom’s application for Social Security retirement benefits has been accepted and now it’s simply a matter of waiting for payments to begin. (This can take up to three months, apparently.)

Meanwhile, in order for her to receive survivors benefits, we need to track down a copy of her marriage certificate, which I suspect is going to eat another couple hours of my time. That’s a task for this afternoon, I guess.

Plus, I haven’t even started talking to Vanguard about how to take Required Minimum Distributions from Mom’s IRA. We have another 5-1/2 months to solve this piece of the puzzle. (RMDs must begin by the time the account holder is 70-1/2 years old.) I’m going to wait until the Social Security benefits are finally flowing before I move on to the IRA.

One final task? The next time I see that Mom is having a lucid day, I want to ask her what we can buy her to improve her life. She says she’s content sitting in front of the television with a cat in her lap, but I feel like there must be something more we can do for her. Maybe get her a second and third cat? Maybe get her a super-deluxe television? Or how about buying a fancy chair with built-in massage?

Mom has some money now. It’d be awesome to use that money to give her a better life.

Important footnote: Dad died in July 1995. Mom has missed out on 23 years of Social Security survivors benefits because we weren’t aware that she should apply for them. That’s crazy! “Do you have any literature on survivors benefits?” I asked the clerk at the Social Security office yesterday. He have me a few pamphlets. Soon, I’ll read all of this material and write a short blog post summarizing the most important pieces.



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