Helping Mom apply for Social Security — More complicated than it needs to be?

My mother turned seventy a couple of weeks ago. This means a couple of things:

  • First, she's reached the age at which she can receive maximum retirement benefits from Social Security.
  • Second, it's time for her to start taking Required Minimum Distributions from her retirement accounts.

If you've been reading Get Rich Slowly for a while, you know that these two routine tasks are less than routine for my family. My mother has fought a long-time battle with mental illness. After a crisis in 2011, my brothers and I realized that she could not live alone. We found a highly-regarded local assisted living facility that specializes in patients with memory issues. (Mom has some sort of cognitive disability that includes memory loss, but which the doctors have been unable to diagnose.)

For the past seven years, Mom has lived at Happy Acres in a comfortable apartment with her cat (Bonnie) and her television. When I see her, I often ask if there's anything more she needs or wants. She assures me that this is all she needs to be happy.

Mom and Bonnie

At this point, Mom struggles with routine personal hygiene, so there's no way she can take care of tasks like signing up for Social Security or taking withdrawals from her retirement accounts. As her sons, that's now our job. (And we're happy to do it.)

You might think that this process would be easy — but you'd be wrong. I suspect that in most cases, getting retirement benefits started is easy, but it's much less so in our situation.

A Little Bit of Kafka

At first, my brother Jeff and I thought that setting up Social Security would be simple. He and I both have Power of Attorney. We're accustomed to this allowing us to breeze through most financial tasks as if we were Mom herself.

In March, about a month before Mom's birthday, I spent an afternoon at the local Social Security office. I took all of the documentation that I could gather.

I arrived to find the waiting room was packed with other folks applying for benefits. It was standing-room only. Rather than get frustrated, I sighed and resigned myself to waiting. And wait, I did. I waited for two hours before my number was called. (It was all fine, though. I spent the time absorbed in a good book.)

When my turn came, I sat at the desk and talked to the clerk. “I'm here to apply for Social Security benefits for my mother,” I said.

“Is your mother with you?” the clerk asked.

“No,” I said. “But I have Power of Attorney.” I pulled out the paperwork to offer proof.

The clerk waved her hand and shook her head. “The Social Security Administration does not recognize Powers of Attorney,” she told me. “To conduct business on your mother's behalf, you must be a designated representative, a legal guardian.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“For all practical purposes, it means you probably should make an appointment to bring your mother in with you. That's going to be the easiest thing to do.”

“Okay,” I said. “But she's not really going to be able to carry on a conversation or to make an informed decision about anything. Still, let's make an appointment.”

“Even if she's not mentally fit, she has to be the one who applies in person,” the clerk said. She clicked at her keyboard, searching for appointment times. “I'm sorry, but we don't have any appointments available.”

I was puzzled. “Let me get this straight. Mom has to apply in person. To apply in person, we have to make an appointment. But there are no appointments available?”

“Well, there three other options,” the clerk said. “She can do what you did today and wait in the lobby. She can call each morning to see if there are any cancellations. Or she can apply online. However, she has to apply herself. You can't fill out the application for her.”

I'll admit that I was both baffled and a little steamed. “She's not able to fill out the application herself. She's not capable,” I said. “I don't think it's a good idea to have her wait here with me for two hours as a drop-in. And calling the day-of to get an appointment is problematic. It would take roughly three hours from the time I called in order to get her here.”

The clerk shrugged. “I don't know what to tell you,” she said. “Those are your three options.”

Skirting the Law

When I returned home, I called my brother to explain the situation. “I feel like there's no way we can get this done,” I said, “unless we fudge things a little.”

“What do you mean?” he said.

“Well, there's no way for Mom to complete the application hereself, right? Legally, she's required to. But what if we completed it for her while she's in the room?”

“I'm okay with that,” Jeff said.

And that's what we did: Jeff and I sat with Mom and worked through the online Social Security benefits application.

Much of the application asked for standard stuff, such as age, mailing address, and so on. It was easy for us to answer those questions. But some of the questions required sleuthing. To set up Mom's online Social Security account, for instance, we had to puzzle out a battery of questions drawn from her credit history. (Solution? Just pull a free credit report, which you're allowed to do three times per year.) To actually complete the benefits application, we needed to figure out important dates regarding her marriage and her work history.

Whenever we reached a question that stumped us, we asked Mom for the answer. She never had the answers, though, so we had to dig through various documents to find the info.

After a couple of hours, we'd finished the application. We asked Mom to type in her name for the digital signature. (Even that was tough for her.) The process was over…or so we thought.

About a week later, we got a letter in the mail from the Social Security Administration. “Thank you for contacting us for an appointment to visit our office,” the letter read. “This is confirmation of the date and time of your appointment.”

“What in the world is this?” Jeff asked me. “We never made an appointment for Mom.”

“I have no idea,” I said. “I thought we'd done everything we need to do at this point. But I'll tell you what. It sounds like we have a firm date and time for an appointment, so let's just take it. We may be duplicating our efforts, but that's okay. I'm willing to sacrifice a few hours of my time just to make sure everything is correct.”

Return to Purgatory

Jeff handled everything with the assisted living facility, arranging for Mom to have an early breakfast, and getting her approved to take a field trip. His wife showed up yesterday morning just to make sure everything went according to plan.

Meanwhile, I left the house at 7:30, stopped by the family box factory to pick up supporting documentation, then headed to Happy Acres to pick up Mom.

When we reached the Social Security office at 8:55, there was already a long line at the door. “There's no way we're going to get inside in time for our nine o'clock appointment,” I thought to myself, but it turns out I needn't have worried. When the office opened, a security guard summoned folks with appointments to the front of the line. Mom and I went inside to meet the clerk who would be conducting the interview.

Our clerk was both friendly and helpful. He was also meticulous and business-like. At first, he directed his questions to Mom (as he should have), but when it became clear that Mom couldn't answer for herself, he addressed me instead.

“We've received your mother's application for retirement benefits,” the clerk told me. “But she's also eligible for survivors benefits. That's what today's interview is about. We want to get her set up in the system so that she receives everything she's due.”

The clerk interviewed us for about twenty minutes. Unfortunately, we weren't able to answer all of his questions because we weren't prepared for them. When did Dad die? I remember that date very clearly. When were Mom and Dad married? I don't know off the top of my head and Mom can no longer remember.

“Do you have a copy of their marriage certificate?” the clerk asked. No, we do not. “Ah, you'll need to get a certified copy and mail it to me in order to complete this process.”

“How do I do that?” I asked.

“You'll need to contact the Department of Vital Records in whichever state she was married,” he said. “Once you get a certified copy, mail it to me in this envelope. After we have all of the documentation we need, benefits will begin a few weeks later.”

To Be Continued…

Last month during my road trip through the southeastern United States, I stopped to visit my pal Cameron Huddleston in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Huddleston, a personal-finance columnist, has experienced something similar herself. Her mother has Alzheimer's, so Huddleston has had to learn to manage her money. And, in fact, she just signed a deal to write a book about managing your parents' money.

“It's kind of a boring topic, but it's important,” Huddleston told me. “It's something that more and more people are wrestling with, especially as lifespans increase and personal finances become more complicated.” She hopes to produce a useful guide to help people like me figure this stuff out. From what we can tell, nothing like this exists right now. It's like each person in my situation has to re-invent the wheel, to puzzle through the process on our own each time. I'm eager to be the first person to buy Huddleston's book!

Obviously, my family still has work to do.

From what we can tell, Mom's application for Social Security retirement benefits has been accepted and now it's simply a matter of waiting for payments to begin. (This can take up to three months, apparently.)

Meanwhile, in order for her to receive survivors benefits, we need to track down a copy of her marriage certificate, which I suspect is going to eat another couple hours of my time. That's a task for this afternoon, I guess.

Plus, I haven't even started talking to Vanguard about how to take Required Minimum Distributions from Mom's IRA. We have another 5-1/2 months to solve this piece of the puzzle. (RMDs must begin by the time the account holder is 70-1/2 years old.) I'm going to wait until the Social Security benefits are finally flowing before I move on to the IRA.

One final task? The next time I see that Mom is having a lucid day, I want to ask her what we can buy her to improve her life. She says she's content sitting in front of the television with a cat in her lap, but I feel like there must be something more we can do for her. Maybe get her a second and third cat? Maybe get her a super-deluxe television? Or how about buying a fancy chair with built-in massage?

Mom has some money now. It'd be awesome to use that money to give her a better life.

Important footnote: Dad died in July 1995. Mom has missed out on 23 years of Social Security survivors benefits because we weren't aware that she should apply for them. That's crazy! “Do you have any literature on survivors benefits?” I asked the clerk at the Social Security office yesterday. He have me a few pamphlets. Soon, I'll read all of this material and write a short blog post summarizing the most important pieces.

More about...Retirement

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others
guest
51 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jason@WinningPersonalFinance
2 years ago

Wow, that’s some story. At least it seems like the SSA was trying to be helpful. I’ve been at motor vehicles for hours when they started throwing people out of the building and saying to come back next time.

Is there any way to apply for retroactive survivor’s benefits?

It’s funny. When we are young and able most of our choices seem so basic and straightforward. When we get old and can no longer make choices for ourselves, they seem to get more complicated.

zoe
zoe
2 years ago

Your mother is very fortunate to have her sons looking out for her. It sounds like your mother is happy and content. Please don’t get a second or third cat. More cats won’t guaranteed more satisfaction. Multiple cats in a small space can cause conflict and disrupt her and Bonnie’s current tranquility.

Sheila
Sheila
2 years ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

We got my Dad a chair that would lift him up to make it easier to get in and out of a chair. Showed him several times how to use it, but he could never remember how to use the control, which was just an up and down button. If your Mom needs to learn a new skill to make the massage chair work, it might not be a good idea. Just something to consider.

Kristen
Kristen
2 years ago

Setting up RMDs with Vanguard is easy, I believe. My in laws just called and they set up a separate account for them. Periodically Vanguard automatically transfers the amount to that taxable account.

S.G.
S.G.
2 years ago
Reply to  Kristen

Yes, you can’t find an alternative to SSA, but Vanguard has customers they have to keep happy. I don’t even have power of attorney for my dad, but his financial advisor (not at Vanguard, but I expect it to be similar) will talk to me with his permission and help me help him set his RMD. And I have the added complication of living a couple thousand miles away. But it has never been a problem. RMDs are really straightforward. I expect it will literally take minutes. It might take a couple more if you try to take out more… Read more »

JP
JP
2 years ago
Reply to  S.G.

Surely the RMD will be MUCH easier than setting up SS!

I’m sorry to hear that she missed out on survivor benefits all these years. My mom hits her full retirement age next year and is still planning/needing to work for several more years. She plans to take survivor benefits earned from my dad’s SS earnings record first, so that she can let her own SS grow until age 70. She isn’t taking that benefit until next year though, because the benefit is significantly reduced if you are still working and haven’t hit full retirement age.

WantNotToWantNot
WantNotToWantNot
2 years ago
Reply to  JP

Agreed. RMD’s at Vanguard should be very straightforward. I would not put that off, however, because the IRS will take 50% (AGH!) as a penalty if you don’t take the REQUIRED minimum distribution (they want those deferred tax revenue).

And let me just say that your mom has two wonderful and devoted sons. She is lucky in that way.

Best of luck to you as you get this all figured out….painful to read.

Deeanna
Deeanna
2 years ago

We are going through this with our elderly Aunt for whom we are responsible. Luckily she did the SS before we really got involved in her finances. With regards to make your Mom more comfortable. Purchase a good recliner with electric/button recline and/or the feature to help her get up out of it. She may not use it now but Aunt Doris uses hers often. Believe it or not Aunt Doris also likes Siri and Alexa. She can just tell them to call us and not have to worry about dialing. Also, we do the electric photo frames where we… Read more »

Jen G
Jen G
2 years ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

Yes, we bought all of those things for my grandma (except Alexa…great idea!) and they definitely improved her life. She also grew up poor, but my grandparents were so frugal they ended up very-late-in-life millionaires as well and we are trying to get her to spend some of the money to improve her life before she passes away.

Dave
Dave
2 years ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

One additional thought on the electric chair – check into Medicare coverage on it as I got my grandmother’s covered under medicare up to a certain amount (can’t remember the specific amount reimbursed). If you purchase it through, for example, a medical supply company, they will have the forms to send into medicare. I think Medicare covers necessary medical equipment (one item like a lift chair) once every 5 years. Need to check as it has been a few years since I did it for my grandmother.

Eileen
Eileen
2 years ago

This made me wonder if my Mom is getting survivor benefits from my Dad’s death. I’ll double check, but I suspect that since they were both getting SS when he died AND the fact that she wouldn’t be getting much on her own, that it’s taken care of. But you never know.

I read on another blog (unrelated to personal finance) where the author was dealing with aging parents. There a survivor’s benefits from the VA also (in certain cases). I believe my Mom (though not at all “rich”) does not qualify.

Thanks for this!

JanBo
JanBo
2 years ago
Reply to  Eileen

If your father was 100% disabled, the survivor benefits are worth checking into.

michael
michael
2 years ago

That’s helpful information and a reminder for everyone to have uncomfortable conversations with their parents or children regarding where to find these vital records if you should become incapacitated for any reason. Getting your parents marriage certificate is pretty easy if you know where they were married (i had to get a copy of mine recent and it took about 10 minutes on the computer followed by 2-3 days waiting for the mail). Unfortunately, for some states (like mine), the marriage/divorce records are contained in county and not state records, which complicates things. For example, I know where my parents… Read more »

Molly
Molly
2 years ago

I don’t know if you are aware but there won’t be two checks or a double benefit once you and SS determine her eligibility for survivor’s benefits. It just means she will most likely get the amount that your father would have been receiving assuming her own benefit is a spousal ie based on his SS benefit amount, or that her benefit is lower which is usually the case for elderly widows. As for missing out on benefits since 1995, that’s only if your mom was eligible for SS benefits when he died, which she wouldn’t have been at 57.… Read more »

Steve
Steve
2 years ago
Reply to  Molly

I am no expert but what I just read said that a widow/widower can collect as early as 60.

Petra
Petra
2 years ago

You’re talking about stuff to buy for your mother. Any experiences that you could buy your mother – that she would truly enjoy? Of course, there are some experiences that would just be stressful to her in her condition. But perhaps she would like: 1. A massage, a new haircut, a pedicure, a manicure, a bath, etc 2. Someone who takes her out of the home to do things like making a walk in the park, drive around the countryside, or go shopping, or going to drink a cup of tea somewhere 3. Creative or musical entertainment – adaptable to… Read more »

stellamarina
stellamarina
2 years ago

I support the idea of a regular scheduled pedicure. When you are old it is hard to bend down and difficult to see your feet….let alone trim your tough old toe nails. We are not talking beauty salon toes here…..this is to stop ingrown toe nails and other foot problems.

Some elderly may appreciate a newspaper or magazine subscription.

Jeff
Jeff
2 years ago

For the record, mom’s recliner is brand new (we purchased for her 70th birthday), and she says it is quite comfortable. It doesn’t have any electric adjustments or massaging features, but it is comfortable and supportive. Many of the cool features most of us would appreciate don’t work so well with her cognitive disability.

Steve
Steve
2 years ago

I am no expert, but I think you have until the end of the calendar year to take her RMD, no matter when in the year she turns 70.5.

Alex
Alex
2 years ago
Reply to  Steve

You actually have until April 1st of the following year. I think this is partially to help people who turn 70.5 on December 31st and might not of realized they had to take an RMD. You will have to take out the next years as well, so it’s possible to increase tax burden.

http://www.finra.org/investors/highlights/dont-be-april-fool-rmd-deadline-april-1

Chad
Chad
2 years ago
Reply to  Steve

By my math and the IRS publications, RMD requirement starts 1 April in the calendar year that you turn 72, regardless of your birthday. So, you still have some time for that should you choose to hold off that long.

Sandi Kay
Sandi Kay
2 years ago

If you have any family members who are hobby genealogists with an Ancestry.com membership, they may be very quickly able to find the marriage certificate.

For my mom’s survivor benefits, she need to find my step-dad’s divorce decree from his first wife. I had a friend who located it within minutes, since she had access to census records and an Ancestry.com account.

Steveark
Steveark
2 years ago

I had a similar experience with my dad who suffered from Parkinson’s and could not walk. He was mentally sharp but could not speak well enough to be understood by someone not accustomed to his speech so I thought with the POA I could handle a Social Security matter. I was also informed that the Kremlin, I mean the Social Security office, did not recognize the common form of guardianship that every other single structure in the free world readily accepts and that regardless of the difficulty and suffering it might cause him that the best bet was to drag… Read more »

bogart
bogart
2 years ago

For those interested in the various benefits SS offers and/or with (potentially) varied claiming options (start year, personal, spousal) I really highly recommend the book Get What’s Yours, which I checked out of my library and read cover-to-cover. Phenomenally informative.

JanBo
JanBo
2 years ago

Not SS- but those of you who have elderly parents who served in the military you need to make sure they are getting their benefits. The process is a bit tedious, but is worth it at the end. Check with the local VFW or DVA. People like Steve’s father should have been getting a monthly check, medical care and help with burial when he passed. This cannot be done retroactively.

Jan
Jan
2 years ago

I think your mom will get a back payment check once her social security gets rolling for your fathers social security. It might take a year or two. One day out of the blue my mom got a check for $10,000. She had no idea it was coming to her until it was in the mailbox for back payments. Also, always check your mother’s mail carefully.

Joe
Joe
2 years ago

Good job helping your mom. It sounds tedious, but at least you’re mostly done. Missing out on survivor benefit is harsh. I know about it, but most people probably don’t. I wonder how many people miss out on these.

My mom doesn’t have to deal with Social Security. She doesn’t have enough credit to qualify for benefit. That’s a different problem altogether…

JanBo
JanBo
2 years ago
Reply to  Joe

Were your parents married for more then ten years? Has your father contributed to SS for the min amount of time? If the answer is yes to these two questions, she does qualify for SS. Your father never has to apply for her to get her benefits. No matter what, if she is a citizen of the US, she may be able to get SSI. Worth looking into.

veronica
veronica
2 years ago

I would like to throw out a suggestion on what more you could do for your mom. There is a growing body of evidence that physical exercise is helpful in improving the quality of life in people with cognitive problems. Why not consider a personal trainer for your mom, someone who specializes in setting up exercise programs for the elderly. If your mom is agreeable, it could benefit her in two ways, physically and also another point of social contact.

Rebecca @ BackroadsMotorsports
Rebecca @ BackroadsMotorsports
2 years ago

We have started a similar process with our daughter who is very LD. She will be 18 soon and I had no idea everything we would need to do to assist her with decision making. Fortunately she has a caseworker through the department of rehab that is assisting us and some resources through the school system. But the paperwork, Oh my!

S.G.
S.G.
2 years ago

Isn’t “endless paperwork” one of Dante’s levels of hell?

Rebecca @ BackroadsMotorsports
Rebecca @ BackroadsMotorsports
2 years ago
Reply to  S.G.

I had no idea we have to get “guardianship” of her. We are hoping to be able to do so without expensive legal bills.

Adam
Adam
2 years ago

Happy birthday to your mom! My pop turned 70 last month. Fortunately he’s entirely lucid and at least as competent as I am. Dad’s grandmother lasted well into her 90s and still routinely whipped her kids and grandkids at cribbage, so we don’t worry too much about his cognitive state. To echo (hah.) some folks above, Alexa has been wicked useful for dad. It reads him books as he goes to sleep at night, and handles his news and music needs nicely. We lost mom a year and a half ago but my brother and I are both local, and… Read more »

Eileen
Eileen
2 years ago
Reply to  Adam

I had never considered an Alexa for my Mom (about to be 90, lives in independent living apt), but your post has made me curious. I think I could let her use my Amazon Prime account to listen to music (I think it only let’s one device listen at a time though). We had an sirius/xm unit she used to listen to “her music” and it died (and we’re out of state), but I bet Alexa would be even even easier. I really like this idea. I wonder if there’s an Amazon Prime for seniors that isn’t so expensive (she’d… Read more »

Eileen
Eileen
2 years ago
Reply to  Eileen

I did look and see that Amazon offers reduced price for people on Medicaid or EBT benefits. That does not apply to my Mom.

Adam, does your father have his own Prime account? The reality is that it would be similar cost to Sirius/XM unit and subscription, even if I paid for her.

My son and I have used the Amazon Music app at the same time and it basically asks you if you want to switch to ‘this’ device (effectively cutting the first person off). So it might make more sense to let her have her own account.

Adam
Adam
2 years ago
Reply to  Eileen

My apologies for just now seeing your reply! Yes, dad’s on his own Prime account. It’s well worth it for how much content he consumes. He’s even made adjustments to various switches and lights to smarten up the areas of the house where he spends most of his time so they’re voice-controlled. He’s all-in with the Amazon platform: books, movies, audio, everything.

teinegurl
teinegurl
2 years ago

What does your mom watch on TV? Maybe some Netflix or if that’s to hard new DVD’s to watch movies and shows. I’ve not dealt with this situation yet im to young and my mom is as well but I find this subject fascinating! 23 YEARS?!? that’s a long time. Seems like she will be well taken cared of until the end of life.

Kim
Kim
2 years ago

Things to do for your mom- are there any special foods she would enjoy that she doesn’t get where she lives? Could you set up a delivery service for her favorite foods to come right to her once in a while? I know my FIL misses some of his favorite foods and I treat him whenever I can. DQ blizzards are his favorite treat so I bring one to him or if he is up to it, I take him to DQ and treat him. Perhaps some fancy, healthy, expensive cat treats for her best friend??? Just some suggestions for… Read more »

sequentialkady
sequentialkady
2 years ago

Would your mom enjoy listening to audiobooks? If so an Audible subscription might be right up her alley.

Debbie
Debbie
2 years ago

Incredibly sad that family members are doing the right thing and are able to spend so much time in the process of doing the right thing, only to have such a difficulty time with Social Security office. Some many people do not have family members or friends that will even try. It sounds like you and your brother are doing Olympic Marathon trials with Social Security office. Your mother is very lucky to have family members that care.

Late Bloomers Money
Late Bloomers Money
2 years ago

wow, what a story. Your mom is lucky to have a son like you. Government make things more complicated than it needs to be. Thank you for sharing your story

Fred Leamnson
Fred Leamnson
2 years ago

J.D., Sadly, your story is so very common. I do webinars on Social Security planning and have written (and will continue) articles on the topic. I’ve heard so many nightmare stories like yours. It all depends on the person you happen to get. In a 2015 study, the GAO found numerous errors in the advice given by SSA employees. Here’s a snippet: “…in 8 of 26 claims interviews in which the claimant could have received higher monthly benefits by waiting until a later age, the claims specialist did not discuss the advantages and disadvantages of delaying claiming. Further, only 7… Read more »

Nancy
Nancy
2 years ago

My parents weren’t wealthy, but they were financially savvy. Since we are a blended family, my parents set up a trust to distribute their assets equally between families. What they hadn’t planned on was Mom having dementia. Even though they had a trust, we had to get POAs from both of them so we could take care of their finances while they were alive. In most instances, we had no trouble taking care of things (pension, IRA, investments. etc.) with the POAs. Now that they have both died, things are actually more difficult. We had to get a new taxpayer… Read more »

Howard Groopman
Howard Groopman
2 years ago

I worked for SSA from 1974-80. There was a simple form, SSA-11, on which you could apply to be a beneficiary’s representative payee. I think it required a doctor’s certification. But once her benefits begin, you probably won’t need to do this, especially in an age of direct deposits. Hard to believe that in this information age, no one informed her or you about survivor’s benefits. Funeral homes notify SSA routinely, and she would have likely qualified for the small one-time death benefit of $255, and probably informed that she was eligible at age 60 as a widow. (I’ve been… Read more »

Katherine
Katherine
2 years ago

My mom also has a combination of cognitive issues and memory issues (along with what started out as some relatively minor physical issues) as a result of a stroke. At first her husband was taking care of her (they were only married for a couple of months before it happened!) but then when he died a few years later I was suddenly tasked with taking care of her (since I’m her only child). It was a whirlwind lasting a solid three months where I was constantly on the phone and attempting to figure out how to navigate all these systems.… Read more »

shares