October 17, 2016

A Cautionary Tale

Social Security and Medicare, along with other government agencies, understandably worry about fraud. But sometimes this worry gets out of hand. I report here on what my 90-year-old mother has had to go through to get her social security benefits. It’s a cautionary tale for all of us.

Last May, my father died. My parents had been married for 67 years. Losing her spouse was traumatic for my mother even though she was as prepared as anyone can be for his death. But my mother pulled herself together and almost immediately began notifying all the relevant authorities of her husband’s death. The funeral home notified the Social Security administration. My mother was informed that she would get a phone call from Social Security on July 13, notifying her of the next steps she would need to take. In particular, she would learn how to get my father’s social security benefits in place of her own in accordance with the law.

A representative from Social Security did indeed telephone on July 13 and my mother was indeed expecting her call. The rep explained that to receive survivor’s benefits, Social Security needed to see original documents (or copies certified by the relevant authority) to prove her citizenship and her marriage.

My mother was told that her expired passport would not qualify to prove her citizenship as it was issued before September 11, 2001. She would have to obtain a new passport (though presumably the expired passport would qualify her to obtain a new passport) to demonstrate she is an American citizen.

My mother has been an American citizen since she was naturalized in 1953. She has no intention of traveling outside the country in the foreseeable future and therefore has no other need for a valid passport.

My mother was also told that she needed to obtain an “official” copy of her marriage license from the City Clerk’s Office of New York. The only document she had, a photocopy of a certificate given to the young couple by the officiant at the wedding, was worthless. I immediately went on line and discovered that marriage records that are over 50 years old, as my parents’ is, are considered a “historic record” and are available to anyone. We paid the requisite $15 fee and submitted a request for an official copy.

We waited. And waited. My mother contacted the City Clerk’s Office and was able to verify they had received the request and the postal money order for $15. The office explained that it would be 8-10 weeks before the request would be processed.

Meanwhile, the Social Security office explained that my mother’s application to receive her husband’s social security benefits would be “terminated” because she had not supplied the necessary documentation. This despite the fact that she only learned she needed an “original” marriage certificate on July 13, that she had submitted a request for that certificate the very same day, and that the City Clerk of NY said it took up to 10 weeks to provide the requisite piece of paper. Fortunately, the application could be re-opened, provided she supplied the materials required within 6 months of my father’s death.

Ten weeks passed. No certificate. My mother again contacted the City Clerk of NY and learned the certificate would be mailed in a week. A week passed. Then two. No certificate. The clock was ticking. It was now 4 months since my father’s death. My mother attempted to telephone the City Clerk of NY and was put on indefinite hold. She sent the Clerk a letter pleading her case.

Remarkably, someone from the City Clerk’s office telephoned. He indicated the certificate had been sent. It was never received. He then said she would have to request another one. But if my mother had to wait another 10 weeks (or longer), the deadline would have passed. He told her that if she mailed a second money order to his attention, he would personally arrange to send the certificate.

Today, the much anticipated certificate arrived, confirming that my parents were indeed married on September 18, 1948.

The social security office has since informed my mother that her expired passport is adequate proof of citizenship and that when we present the official copy of her marriage certificate later this week, she will receive her husband’s social security benefits—retroactive to the date of his death.

Wish us luck. And to all of you out there who do not have original birth certificates or valid US passports or certified marriage certificates—get your documents in order now, just in case.

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