Privacy Laws and Social Security

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I remember my days as a trainee at the Social Security Administration. And gosh, that was almost 50 years ago! The Privacy Act was the first law that we were taught. It prohibited us from sharing any information regarding anyone’s Social Security records to anyone else than the record holder.

Most Americans agree that the law is sensible. It is not right for the government to share earnings or benefits from your Social Security file with anyone else. This includes spouses and all other people. For most married couples, this is not a problem. Because we share this information, I know my spouse’s Social Security benefits and she knows mine.

If we didn’t share that information, I would not be able call the SSA and ask her what she’s getting. These privacy laws are upheld by the government or at least the Social Security Administration.

Sometimes, this can cause problems for people trying to obtain Social Security information on a spouse to prove that they are legitimately seeking it. This is especially true for divorcing couples. Emails today are a good example of this.

Q: I was married to my husband for over 30 years. He was an old-fashioned man and believed that a woman’s home is where she belongs. Therefore, he refused to allow me to take on any outside work. So I don’t have any Social Security. However, he was a physician and earned a good living. I am sure that he will receive a comfortable Social Security retirement benefit. He left me two years ago and married one his young nurses. I was left with my house and some money by our divorce decree. I am about to turn 62. He is 67. I’m trying to decide whether I should apply for my share of his Social Security or wait until I get older to receive a higher rate. My husband won’t tell you if he applied for Social Security or how much he is due. I called the Social Security Helpline. They told me that they couldn’t tell me how much I owe on his Social Security account because of the law. What if I don’t have all the facts to make a decision?

A. First, I will give you an estimate of the amount you may owe on your ex-husband’s Social Security account. Next, I will assist you in obtaining more detailed information from the SSA.

Since your ex-spouse was a doctor we can assume that he likely paid the maximum amount to Social Security over his lifetime. This will mean that he will be eligible for a very large monthly Social Security benefit. That rate is currently in the $3,100 range. At age 62, you’d be due about a third of that, or around $1,025 per month. If you wait until your full retirement age to file, then you would get a 50 percent rate, or $1,550 per month.

But the Social Security Administration should be able give you precise numbers. Although you claimed you tried, they said that they could not share the information with you. You spoke to an overzealous Social Security representative, who seems to be taking the laws regarding the privacy of Social Security records too literally.

I suggest that you call them back to get a more knowledgeable and reliable representative. The representative will not be able tell you whether your husband has applied to Security benefits, how much he’s receiving (or what his potential due). The rep can inform you how much you might be eligible for from his account.

You may need to go in person for this once Social Security offices reopen. Technically, to obtain this information, you will need to prove to the SSA you are who you claim to be and that you may be entitled to his benefits as a divorced spouse. You will need to present your ID and a copy of the marriage certificate. It will be a great help to have your ex’s Social Security Number.

Q: I am 66 years old and about to retire. I was married for 25 years, but we divorced about 10 years ago. We did not have children. After we divorced, he moved to another place and I have lost contact with him. I would not be surprised to learn that he died after the divorce. What is the best way to find out if widow’s benefits are available?

A. Your case is an excellent example of why I encourage divorcées to keep in touch with their husbands. Maybe you can make contact with your mutual friends. They could also find out his address and subscribe to the local newspaper. You can then read the obituaries each day!

But that didn’t happen in your case. What can you do? You should call Social Security at 800-772-1213. What about privacy laws? The person’s right of privacy is lost when they die, at least in relation to Social Security. The SSA should be able tell you if your ex-partner has died. (They receive death reports from the state and local bureaus for vital statistics. )

And if your husband is dead, they should assist you in filing for widow’s benefits. The “widow’s choice” mentioned many times in this column would allow you to use the option. You would file for widow’s benefits now, and then at 70, switch to 132 percent of your own retirement benefit.

If your ex-partner is still alive, the SSA representative would need to be careful with privacy laws. If he is still alive, telling him that he is could be taken to mean that SSA rep violated his privacy rights. When I used to work in the local Social Security offices back in the day, I would have said something along these lines: “I cannot tell you if your husband is still living, but I can tell that you are not eligible for widows’ benefits.” I hope that you understand that this was my indirect way of telling that he is still breathing.

Tom Margenau worked for 32 years in a variety of positions for the Social Security Administration before retiring in 2005. After serving as director of SSA’s Public Information Office, chief editor of more SSA publications, a deputy Press Officer and spokesman, and a speechwriter to the Commissioner of Social Security, he retired in 2005. For 12 years, he also wrote Social Security columns for local newspapers, and recently published the book “Social Security: Simple and Smart.” If you have a Social Security question, contact him at, The Epoch Times
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