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Social Security Need-to-Know Housekeeping

Posted Jan 09 2013 8:30am

Nothing about politics today or even about the politicians who want to kill Social Security. Just a couple of things you definitely need to know.

Although we've mentioned this before, it has been awhile and time is getting short as Nancy Leitz, who contributes wonderful stories at The Elder Storytelling Place , reminded me.

ATTENTION: On 1 March this year – less than two months from now - Social Security benefit checks go completely digital. No more paper checks via snailmail.

This also applies to SSI and Veterans Administration compensation and pension benefits. Here are your new choices:

  1. Direct bank deposit
  2. Direct Express Debit MasterCard

So before 1 March, you must make a choice and make arrangements with the Social Security Administration to receive your monthly benefit.

You can call the main Social Security office on a secure line: 800.772.1213 (TTY 800.325.0778) and they will help you do this.

Or, you can fill out this online form [pdf] at the Social Security website, print it and either mail it or take it to your local Social Security office.

A similar assistance service is available through the Treasury Department's GoDirect website , or telephone them at 800.333.1795. (Sorry, I don't have a TTY number for them.)

If you are still receiving paper checks, do this now so there will be no interruption in your monthly benefit.

UPDATE: There are several possible exemptions from the requirement of direct deposit: if a Social Security beneficiary lives in a rural area, is age 90 or older or suffers from a mental illness that makes them incapable of managing a bank account.

Salem, Oregon elderlaw attorney John Gear emailed to explain a little-known way direct deposit can help low-income elders in some locations:

"In Oregon, and presumably some other states as well, there is one advantage to getting benefits by direct deposit: recipients of certain payments (like Social Security) can file a preemptive exemption from garnishment form with their bank/credit union that will protect the money from garnishment.

"This is so that, unless it's a government garnishment, the bank/credit union will not satisfy garnishment writs served on them by ordinary creditors from the account where the direct deposits land (if there is an exemption filed for that account)...

"I believe this was a concession obtained on behalf of consumers by consumer attorney organizations who were appalled by U.S. government's unthinking decision to force all elders to go on direct deposit because it would mean that many elders would starve, as creditors and bottom feeding debt collectors with piles of old judgments (bought for pennies on the dollar) would come out of the woodwork and start mass computerized garnishment binges, which many elders are very poorly equipped to challenge...

"I advise all my clients on the economic margins to have a separate account at a credit union to receive all such payments, file the exemption form for that account, and then never put any other money (not exempt from garnishment) in that account. That way, there's never any doubt that the only money in there is legally exempt from garnishment by consumer debt collectors."

On Monday, the Social Security Administration announced the launch of its expanded My Social Security Account service for working people 18 and older and current benefit recipients. Here is an explanation from the announcement:

”More than 60 million Social Security beneficiaries and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients can now access their benefit verification letter, payment history, and earnings record instantly using their online account. Social Security beneficiaries also can change their address and start or change direct deposit information online.”

Although this is a good idea on its face, there is another reason for the upgraded website – an example of what happens when Congress cuts program funding:

“'Given our significantly reduced funding, we have to find innovative ways to continue to meet the needs of the American people without compromising service,' said Commissioner [Michael J.] Astrue. 'These new enhancements will allow us to provide faster service to more people in more places.'”

You may have noticed that for the same reason, a good number of Social Security offices around the nation have been or will soon be closed.

I signed up for MySocialSecurity on Monday at their secure website. The usual personal information is required: name, current address, date of birth, Social Security number, telephone number, email address, etc., plus a page to create a user name and password.

There are three security questions to select for future use if/when you want to change your password. It was amusing to read this one [my emphasis]:

”What was your first telephone number as a child, including area code?

I wonder how many glitches there will be for those of us who are old enough to remember phone numbers before area codes existed, even phone numbers like FI2039, my childhood number. I did not test the system with that number; I chose a different question.

Once you are signed up, you can see all your lifelong Social Security information. Earnings record for you entire working life. What portion of earnings on which you paid FICA and Medicare (beginning in 1966).

Benefit details, payment dates, a profile section with all the information you have given SSA where it is easy to change home address, email address, phone number or bank account particulars if that becomes necessary.

There is an excellent help section and once you have created your account, you can use it to switch to electronic benefit payments instead of the methods above if you wish.

The website is easy to use and if you run into trouble, there is a link to find a phone number or email address for more help. Do it today . It takes only about five minutes and will be useful for the rest of your life.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Arlene Corwin: Seventy & Eight

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