How to Be a Smart Consumer of Social Security

By Jonathan Peterson

Copyright © 2015 AARP

You can help keep your dealings with the Social Security Administration smooth by staying organized. If you’re naturally diligent and well organized, you may want to skip the next few paragraphs. Staying organized doesn’t come easy to everyone, and it sure helps.

The SSA is about details, and bureaucrats are trained to follow procedure. If a time clock is ticking, you don’t want to have a crisis because you forgot to get ahold of something that the SSA asked for several weeks before. In some cases, failure to complete an application on time could mean sacrificing money that you’re eligible for.

Here are a few simple suggestions to lower your stress, make sure that you receive everything you’re entitled to, and help you stay on top of any issue that comes up with the SSA.

Keep good records

Make a file. Go low tech — a nice old‐fashioned manila folder that fits in a drawer somewhere. This file is home base for all your Social Security papers. Include in the file your application number, if you applied for a benefit.

Also, include any correspondence you have with the SSA. Make notes during or after phone calls and office visits, including the names of the people you talked to, and drop those notes in the file. Write reminders about unfinished business and deadlines by which you need to complete each task. If you’ve saved copies of your personal Social Security statements (which you should), keep them here.

Save in your file the SSA toll‐free numbers, as well as the phone number and address of your local office. You can find the address of your local office by calling the SSA, looking in the government pages in your local phone book, or going online to ssa.gov, clicking on “contact us,” and then clicking the “find an office” link.

Making sense of the correspondence you get from Social Security

Read all correspondence carefully, and save it in your Social Security file. Don’t just skim correspondence — a letter may provide a deadline for action or clarify further documents you need to provide.

Although you may have good reason to call or make a personal visit, writing a letter can sometimes be a useful way to communicate with the SSA if the matter isn’t urgent. A letter establishes a written record. If you write a letter, always include your Social Security number and the names of any SSA representatives you’ve been dealing with.

If you’re sending important information or documents rather than delivering them, send them certified mail and save the receipt. Make photocopies of what you mail and save them. Always attach your name and number to any documents you send or deliver.

The SSA doesn’t want you to mail foreign birth records or any documents from the Department of Homeland Security. These records are hard to replace. Bring them yourself to your local Social Security office instead.

Making (and showing up for) appointments

Before you show up at an SSA office, make an appointment, and be sure to keep the appointment. When you have an appointment, you don’t have to wait nearly as long to be seen. Plus, for some people, face‐to‐face meetings may prevent mistakes when filing applications.

During or after the appointment, write down what you found out, and save the information in your SSA file. Keep a record of your visit, even if it’s the ticket you got at the kiosk in the office.