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10 Steps to Social Security Survivor Benefits
Getting Benefits is Easy. Well, Kinda.
In America, when a working parent dies, his/her family is entitled to survivor benefits from the Social Security Administration. This is something I'd never thought much about -- until last month.
My 17-year-old's father, my ex-husband, died in May. As sole legal guardian of Sonny, I am now feeling my way through a maze of decisions, applications and appeals that affect his short-term and long-term financial security. It's been interesting, to say the least -- and we're just getting rolling.
Step 1: Research
First order of business was to get Sonny hooked up with his Social Security survivor benefits. Like any modern researcher, I started with the Internet.
If you Google "Social Security" be aware that the first 5-6 entries that come up are NOT the actual United States Social Security Administration. They are firms that "specialize" in helping people obtain the benefits to which they are entitled.
The actual SSA website is www.ssa.gov. As government websites go, I'd say it's one of the best I've seen. It has a lot of information and offers a lot of FAQs, links, resources and search functions.
One really nifty feature is right on the Home Page, in the upper left corner, it tells you the things you can do online. Wow. That's what I call customer-centric service.
Step 2: Phone Contact
Alas, I quickly got in over my head with the website. So I decided to try my luck with a phone call.
First I located my local Social Security office. After 5 busy, busy, busy attempts, I gave up and called the 800 number. Given that this number serves the entire benefits-hungry population of the United States, I expected an interminable wait. I was pleasantly surprised.
Step 2A: Making Good Use of Wait Time
You know this organization means business right away. There's no Muzak or Sirius songs from the '80s on hold. No sir.
The Social Security Administration uses your on-hold time to gather key information from you. To wit:
1. SS Number of the person you are calling about
2. Name and spelling of person's name
3. Date of birth of person you are calling about
4. Current address of the person
5. The state in which the person was born
6. The maiden name of the person's mother
The wait time was less than two minutes. Not bad!
Step 3: Application via Phone
The agent who helped me introduced herself as Janis. She was really nice and very pleasant and seemed to know her shit.
For example, she explained that both Sonny and I might be eligible for additional benefits. Really? Who knew?
Turns out, since Ex and I were married for 10+ years, I could, even as a divorced spouse, be eligible for some survivor benefits myself! Alas, I am not "60 or better" nor am I disabled. Nice try, tho, Janis!
Sonny, too, could receive extra benefits for being disabled. Even without the looming threat of perjury, I could not in good conscience describe Sonny as disabled.
All in all, though, the conversation left me optimistic. Sonny was going to receive a one-time lump sum of $255 plus 75% of the monthly amount his dad would have received, based on dad's Social Security earnings. This is not an amount to be sneezed at.
That's the good news.
The bad news is child survivor benefits stop when the child turns 18 or finishes high school. Still, at 17 and change, Sonny's looking at a nice little nest egg over the next several months.
Step 4: Application in Person
Thusfar the whole process seemed too good to be true. Turns out -- guess what? -- it was.
Janis called me back about 15 minutes after we'd completed her questionnaire (a process that had taken probably 45 minutes). Sheepishly, she told me she was not able to process a child survivor benefit claim over the phone. Uh, ok... so now what do I do?
If I wanted Sonny to get the benefits coming to him I had no choice but to march myself down to the local Social Security office. You remember, the one with the chronically busy phone line.
Janis was kind enough to set me up with an appointment for 1:20 on Friday. Then a client called and wanted to meet at that very same time. So I called back (didn't get Janis this time) and was told, "Oh, you can just walk in and they'll take you anytime." Really? Well then, why wait? I went in the next day.
I anticipated a scene similar to the DMV. Lines out the door, people taking numbers and watching for theirs to come up on a screen. Mass pandemonium as customers navigated their way to the right window.
Another Pleasant Surprise
The office was busy, but not jammed. The waiting time was not bad, either.
My name was called and I was sent through Door A to Window 21. The scene struck me as coolly efficient, bordering on sterile. None of the agents had any clutter on their workstations. There were no decorations anywhere. Just rows and rows of agent windows.
My agent was fresh-faced, freckled, and quite young (when you're my age, everyone looks young). Once again, I thought, "This is not at all what I expected."
Step 5: Proving Yourself ... or Others
I had arrived armed with all the necessary paperwork:
1. Ex's death certificate. Check.
2. Sonny's birth certificate. Check.
3. Picture ID for me. Check.
Apparently the time I had spent earlier on the phone with Janis was of minimal benefit. Although she had input all the information, the information was for some reason not accessible to Leslie (the freckle girl). So basically, we had to start all over from scratch. Oh well, I had planned on a multi-hour visit.
We were doing fine until Leslie got hung up on Sonny's birth certificate and the "fact" that people can just put any old father's name on a birth certificate. I wasn't following. I thought she was questioning why I have a different last name than Sonny. The answer to that is very easy: I use my maiden name. It had been hyphenated when Sonny was born, so surely the connection -- my maiden name - hyphen - his last name -- would be obvious to anyone.
It turns out what she was wanting me to prove was not MY relationship to Sonny, but that Ex was really Sonny's father! I sat there in disbelief. I literally had no idea what document would satisfy Leslie, or if such a document even existed. My mind was tilting towards blood tests, but how would we get blood from Ex? He's 6 feet under, for God's sake!
Saved by a Coworker
Luckily the agent in the next window happened to overhear this conversation and told Leslie she did NOT need this level of proof. I did not get that woman's name, but I'm sure it was Angelica!
Leslie accepted the woman's word (thank God) and finished processing the application. She informed me the amount of Sonny's monthly benefit and told me to look for a deposit in my account within the next few days.
Step 6: Waiting for the Money
Backing up a step here. Please bear with me.
One of the last questions asked by Janis (the phone agent) was did I want monthly checks mailed to me or did I want direct deposit? For obvious reasons I selected direct deposit. I gave her the routing number and account number of my Wells Fargo savings account. I figured that way I wouldn't get Sonny's SS money "confused" with all the other large sums of money direct deposited into my checking account each month. I wish!
Seriously. It only made sense to have the money come straight into my account, as I am the designed "payee" for Sonny, who is a minor. I have that account already linked to bank account for Sonny. This way I can "feed" him allowance as I deem appropriate. And he never needs to see or know the full amount of "his" SS earnings.
And waiting, and waiting
I could have sworn Leslie said the deposit would be there within a couple of days. I met with her on 6/23. Every day, and sometimes more than once, I checked my account online. No hefty deposits.
Finally, on 6/30 I had worked myself up into a state. Had I given them the correct routing number? How about account number? Had I misheard Leslie? Maybe his benefits wouldn't come until the second Wednesday of the month as she'd written on the form.
This one goes one louder
Step 7: Phone Follow-Up
Once again I called the Social Security 800 number. I tried both of the phone numbers -- including a direct dial -- that Leslie had given me. Nothing but busy signals.
Today's agent, Emily, was not nearly as nice as Janis. She was like Christopher Guest in the movie "Spinal Tap." There's a classic scene where Christopher Guest's character is showing off his amplifiers that go to "11." He is absolutely certain of the superiority of these amps because they exceed the usual volume of 10 by offering "one louder."
Emily swore up and down to me that a deposit had been made on 6/25. I told her there was no sign of any deposit in my Wells Fargo account. She insisted it had been made. I insisted it wasn't in there. I even had her read back the account number -- it was correct.
So where the heck was the money???
Step 8. Get the Bank Involved
I called my local Wells Fargo branch where I was put on hold for 8 minutes. I called back again and told them that was not very good customer service. I didn't say, but could have, that as a private sector service provider they could take a lesson from the government employees at SSA.
I explained that I was looking to trace a deposit or an attempted deposit. Guess what? I would have come in and discuss the matter in person, as they cannot discuss account details over the phone.
Fair enough. I put on my big girl panties, loaded my holster, and set off to get to the bottom of this missing money mystery once and for all.
I plunked myself down in front of Shah, a very charming young personal banker. Little did I know I'd be there for 2 hours.
Step 8a. Fend off Bankers
Shah's first guess was that the money came in addressed to Sonny but to my account number. Sensing a mismatch, the Wells Fargo system kicked back the check. Unfortunately, this explanation did not pan out.
In the meantime, Shah and the branch manager convinced me that I needed to have a separate, designated account just for the purpose of this Social Security money. They informed me I will need to keep an accounting of what the money is spent on, etc. They said the best thing to do would be to open a combination checking/savings account that has both my name and Sonny's name on it. Ok. If it means getting the SS money sooner, I'll do whatever it takes.
As I was sitting there with Shah and the branch manager, I received a stern lecture on the importance of saving money. I swear to God the two of them were grilling me about Sonny's spending habits and interrogating me on how much of the monthly SS check would go into savings vs. be available for Sonny to fritter away on a whim?
I asked them point blank, "Is this something I have to set up now? What if his needs change? I want all the money to be liquid." They backed off somewhat, but droned on and on about the need to save for the future. Well of course. No one can argue with that! Too bad with interest rates like theirs, you're better off saving in a mayonnaise jar or under the mattress.
Somewhere during this conversation I made the BIG mistake of saying to them -- "Look, I'm not really concerned about this monthly money. This is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of money I'm going to be managing for him once the life insurance comes and the estate settles." What I wanted to do was get them off my back about the savings thing. Ok, I admit it. I was starting to get testy.
Instead of dropping the subject they trotted out their "high net worth customer banking specialist." This guy looked to be about 12 and I disliked him instantly. He smelled money and was sniffing around wanting to make sure when Sonny's windfall comes through it comes through Wells Fargo. Oh yes, I assured them. I'm MOST interested in your high yield (meaning, over .5%) accounts. LOL. I don't think so!
In the end, I left Wells Fargo with two new accounts opened. I should also mention that to open these two new accounts they tranferred $200 dollars of MY money! $100 into the new savings account and $100 into the new checking account. Oh great. Is it me, or am I going backwards here???
Step 9: SS, Meet WF
My two-hour visit at Wells Fargo included yet another call to the Social Security 800 number. The idea was to give SS the NEW account number so they could deposit (or redeposit as the case may be) the money.
This time we got a crusty agent named Annette. She was NOT friendly. Like Emily earlier in the day, she claimed the deposit had already been made on the 25th. Like Emily, she would not back down from that posture.
She seemed to have a moment of panic when we explained we'd opened this new, designated account. I believe her exact words were, "But the other account is still open, right?" Yes.
I put Shah on the phone with Annette.
Shah basically accused SSA of lying. He said Wells Fargo had no record of any attempt to deposit any money into my account. Wells Fargo had not rejected the deposit because there WAS no deposit.
Meanwhile, he and branch manager (we'll call her BM. Ha ha) swore categorically that I HAD to have this designated account with both my name and Sonny's. That SS would not, could not, deposit money for Sonny in an account in my name only. Now, I'm no financial genius, but the documentation I have from SS clearly names ME as the "payee" on behalf of Sonny. Isn't the definition of "payee trustee" someone who takes the money on behalf of someone else?
And not for anything, but never, not once in all the previous conversations with SSA, had any of their agents told me I needed to set up a special account. Not Janis, not Leslie, not Emily, and especially not Annette.
Either Wells Fargo was full of it, or Social Security was. It didn't really matter to me at that point. I just wanted to be done with this and move on to the next financial challenge posed by Ex's death.
Step 10. Allelujah!
Parting words by Shah as I left Wells Fargo. "If you don't see the money by tomorrow, call me and I will track it down with Social Security. I have a contact there, but I can't bring just any case to them." Oh, right. Of course not.
Well, lo and behold, I went online this morning and there, staring me in the face, was a nice, fat account balance in my savings account. No, not the new account set up yesterday with Shah. The account I had given to Janis when first initiating the process.
How did this miracle occur, you might ask? I might, too. But something tells me -- I don't really want to know.
Stay tuned next month to see whether, and to which account, Sonny's regular monthly benefit gets deposited! By then, I'll be busy petitioning the court to handle the life insurance claim for Sonny. Good thing he's getting all this money, as I certainly don't have much time to work!!