Social Insecurity

Jason Stackhouse: Sometimes the right thing to do is the wrong thing.

True Blood, “Evil is Going On” (9/12/10)

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Shortly after my mother died, I met with the folks at the funeral home. (Remember, you can’t spell “funeral” without F-U-N!) It turns out that these places offer a few services that you don’t always know about. For instance, they offered to help with any insurance claims we might have, they were willing to ensure that I had plenty of copies of the death certificate, and so on. All for a nominal fee, of course. In fact, I learned later on that the death certificates, for which they charged us $10 each, were rather profitable to the funeral home but only if we ordered more than two. If we only wanted one they’d take a loss; two was the break-even point. After that it was a tidy 25% profit on each one. Anyway, one of the services they offered for free was contacting the Social Security Administration on our behalf, in order to ensure that benefits payments stopped in a timely manner. Great, we said, we’ll take one of those.

Flash-forward to a few weeks later, and I’m at the bank trying to straighten out some financial matters for my grandmother. While I’m there, I ask my Friendly Customer Service Agent if she can look something up for me on my mother’s bank account. “We can’t figure out whether she got a pension from New York State,” I asked. “Can you tell me if anything went into that account on a regular basis besides her Social Security?”

The woman scanned the account before telling me no. “But here’s something odd,” she said. “A payment is processing today—right now. That’s not supposed to happen.” I agreed with her on that point and we concluded our business.

No stupid alt text here; move along. When I got back to the house, I called the Social Security Administration. After wading through several levels of bureaucratic phone tree, I finally landed a human being. Here was his explanation: Social Security pays you retroactively. You survive the month and then they pay you for your achievement. And payments are NOT prorated. So if you die in June, you don’t get even a partial payment in July, even if you die on the last day of the month. The payment that my mother was receiving on June 26th was her May payment. However, she’d already died by the time the payment was processed. “If this were a paper check,” he explained, “she wouldn’t have been able to sign it, because she died a couple of weeks earlier. As a survivor, however, you’re entitled to the payment.” Therefore, SSA would contact the bank to withdraw the money and then re-distribute it to my brothers and me. He promised to send me a form that would stand as a formal request for the money, and enclosed a pre-addressed envelope so that I could send it to the Towson, MD office rather than somewhere in Florida.

He made good on the promise: the form was waiting for me when I returned to Baltimore. Dutifully I filled it out with all kinds of details about myself, my brothers and my grandmother, and mailed it in the Enclosed Envelope to the Towson office.

This past Friday, I logged into the bank’s website to see what was up with the various bank accounts. By this time, they’d appended my name to my mom’s account so I could see that one as well. The problem was, the money was still there. The SSA hadn’t withdrawn it. So I gave them a call, starting with the central SSA number.

One day's mail regarding my mother's estate. The problem with talking to some of these people is that they’re so used to giving you the canned answers that they’re not always listening to your question. The other problem is that many of these people tend to assume that you understand their jargon, so they’ll ask you questions like, “Well, was it the SXV-6721 form or the MUR-2917?” and of course you have no idea, you just filled out the form in the Spaces Indicated and mailed it back. Finally the guy suggested I call the Towson office directly. I called them and got a message saying that the office had closed. At 3:00 PM. Oh, fine: I’ll just come visit on Monday, then. A few minutes later, the mail arrived. In it was a form letter thanking me for submitting the request for undisbursed funds and denying my request because there were no undisbursed funds. So now at least I had something in my hand that I could wave at the Social Security administrators.

When you go to the Towson Social Security office, you have to sign in on a computer terminal by punching in your social security number (“even if you’re here for someone else”) and a printer spits out a ticket with a letter and a number on it, much like you get at the Motor Vehicles office. Mine was L762, and the L’s were up around L758, so there wouldn’t be much wait, I figured. Every once in awhile, a voice would come on the P.A. and announce something like, “K129, Window 7”, and ticket K129 would get up and move to Window 7. However, there was also someone who simply shouted her ticket numbers across the room. Naturally, this is who I got: “L762, Window 16!” came the shout from the polar opposite corner of the waiting area.

The woman at Window 16 was perfectly nice, but she was also locked into the track of offering up the canned answers, even to the point of giving me another form to complete to appeal the decision from Friday’s letter. I finally broke through and said, “I’m not here saying that I’m looking for more money; I’m trying to simplify this situation before the account gets liquefied by my mother’s lawyers and suddenly I have to find a way to reimburse the SSA.” That’s when the “Aha!” look appeared in her eyes, and she decided that she couldn’t help me; I’d have to get shuttled to someone else. “Go sit back down and someone will call your name.”

About ten minutes later I was summoned to Window 4. This woman actually listened carefully to what I had to say, then looked up the record and finally said, “You know what? Just let it go. That money should have come out by now; if it didn’t then I wouldn’t worry about it. It’d just go back to you anyway, based on what you’re telling me.” Well…yeah, I agreed. Me and my brothers. And we were probably going to give it to my grandmother anyway.

So, between June 26 and this past Monday (July 29), I managed to take about three hours’ effort and generate absolutely no change in matters. Your tax dollars at work, friend.