April 13, 2024 5:41 AM
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Privacy Laws and Social Security

Social Security’s privacy laws are a topic I’ve covered in past columns. But I can tell from my emails that it’s time I do so again.

I recall my days as a trainee with the Social Security Administration. And gosh, that was more than 50 years ago now! The very first thing drilled into our heads was that a law called the Privacy Act prevented us from disclosing any information about anyone’s Social Security record to anyone else other than the record holder himself or herself.

Almost all Americans agree that the law makes sense. You certainly don’t want the government sharing earnings or benefit information from your Social Security files with other people. And “other people” means everyone — including spouses and other family members. This isn’t too much of an issue for most families and for most married couples. For example, I know what my wife’s Social Security benefit is and she knows what I am getting. That’s because we share that information with each other.

But if we weren’t that kind of a sharing couple, I would not be able to call the SSA to find out what she is getting, and she would not be able to call the SSA to find out what I am getting. The government, or at least the Social Security Administration, is very strict about upholding these privacy laws.

And that can sometimes lead to problems when people are trying to get Social Security information about a family member or spouse for legitimate reasons. Today’s emails provide examples of this.

Q: I am trying to help my 90-year-old mother with a Social Security problem. She never got the 1099 form from the Social Security Administration that she needs to file her tax return. She lives in California. I live in Arizona. So, I went to my local Social Security office. The clerk I talked to seemed very friendly and said she would see to it that another 1099 was sent to her. But several weeks went by and my mother never got the form. So, I went back to our local office and this time talked to a different agent. This person said that with my mother’s permission, he would print out the form and mail it to her. We called my mom and of course she gave him permission to do so. Then he printed out the form. He gave me an envelope and asked me to write my mom’s address on the envelope. Then he put the 1099 form inside the envelope and put it in the office’s outgoing mail. I was a little upset and kept telling this agent that he should just give me the form and I would get it to my mom. But he said the law prevented him from doing this. Can you help me understand this?

A: Just reread the first couple paragraphs of this column and you should understand what’s going on. Obviously, you were just trying to help your mother. But again, the law is VERY clear on this. The Social Security representative was simply following the law. In fact, he would have gotten into serious trouble and possibly could have been fired if he gave your mother’s 1099 to you. And rather than being upset with him, I think you should have thanked him. Rather than push a few buttons to have the SSA’s central 1099 system mail another form to your mother (as the first clerk you talked to did — with no results), this guy took the time to call your mother, print out the form, and mail it directly to her himself.

Q: I was married to my husband for over 30 years. He was an old-fashioned man who said that “a woman’s place is in the home,” so he never let me get an outside job. Therefore, I have no Social Security of my own. On the other hand, he was a doctor and made a very nice living, and I’m sure he will be due a comfortable Social Security retirement benefit. About two years ago, he left me and married one of his young nurses. At least our divorce decree left me with our house and a little bit of money. I am about to turn 62. He is 67. I am trying to decide if I should file for my share of his Social Security now, or if I should wait until I am older and get a higher rate. My husband won’t tell me if he has applied for Social Security and/or how much he is due. I called the Social Security help line and was told that the law prevented them from telling me what I am due on his Social Security account. How can I make a decision if I don’t have all the facts?

A: First I am going to give you a ballpark of what you might be due on your ex-husband’s Social Security account. Then I will help you get more precise information from the people at the SSA.

Because your ex was a doctor, let’s assume he probably paid the maximum amount into Social Security all his life, meaning he will likely qualify for a very high monthly Social Security benefit. That rate is currently in the $3,800 range. At age 62, you’d be due about a third of that, or around $1,250 per month. If you wait until your full retirement age to file, then you would get a 50% rate, or $1,900.

But you should be able to get precise figures from the Social Security Administration. You said you tried and were told they couldn’t share that information with you. I’m afraid you talked to a bit of an overzealous Social Security rep who is taking the laws about privacy of Social Security records a little too literally.

I suggest you call them back and hope you get a more informed and reliable representative. He or she will NOT be able to tell you if your husband has applied for Security benefits or how much he is getting (or what he is potentially due). But the rep can tell you how much you would be eligible for on his account.

There is a chance you may have to do this in person at your local Social Security office. And that’s because, technically, to get that information, you’re going to have to prove to the SSA that you are who you say you are and that you are potentially due divorced wife’s benefits on his account. So, you will need your own ID, and you will have to show them a marriage certificate and divorce papers. And of course, it will greatly help if you have your ex’s Social Security number.

Finally, one other thing you should know: A divorced woman can file for spousal benefits even if her ex hasn’t yet filed himself. If you decide you want to take spousal benefits now, then file a claim right away.

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