In the estate planning work we do for our clients, we need to know how to deal with a number of different government agencies. Depending on a client’s age and personal circumstances, we often help facilitate claims for benefits though the Connecticut Department of Social Services (“DSS”), and the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”). Many clients are also navigating their way through claims with the United States Social Security Administration (“SSA”). Frustratingly, each of those agencies has separate and confusing rules, and those rules and procedures are constantly changing. So we devote a lot of time and effort into keeping abreast of those changes. And we are always trying to figure out the best way to sort through all of the associated complexities.
Sometimes we are asked if benefit claims are things that people can handle on their own without a need for lawyer. Our answer tends to be: sure. But there is a very big caveat. That is to say, as challenging as we find it to keep up with the agencies’ rules and processes, just imagine how much more challenging it can be to an uninformed family that tries to tackle benefit claims on their own! And it does not help that the agencies themselves often end up making it even more difficult for families to know their options and to make the best decisions.
In a report issued in September 2016, the United States Governmental Accountability Office (“GAO”) made several discouraging findings. See http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-16-786?utm_medium=email&utm_source=govdelivery. First, the GAO looked at 9 other surveys and academic studies. Based on the material reviewed, the GAO concluded that many individuals simply do not understand many important key details of the rules of Social Security. They tend to not understand how benefits are calculated, what sort of benefits are available to spouses, and how much benefits can change if a retiree delays collecting benefits longer. And they have little understanding of the concept of life expectancy and how that should figure into retirement claim decisions.
Second, the GAO analyzed 30 in-person claims made by retirees at SSA field offices. GAO found that those retirees were not consistently being provided with the key information needed to make wise benefit decisions. In 26 of those situations the claimant would have been better off waiting several years before beginning to collect their retirement benefits. Yet 8 of those 26 retirees received no guidance whatsoever on making that better choice. SSA’s own procedural manual states that claim specialists should explain the advantages and disadvantages of filing an application so that the individual can make an informed filing decision. 18 of the subject retirees were subject to the SSA’s retirement earnings test. But 7 of those retirees received no information about that test and how it works. Similar inadequacies were found in a review of the SSA’s computer system used for online applications.
We can tell you it is even more frustrating at times to hear about the misinformation families have received from the VA and from DSS in dealing with long-term care claims. Families need to understand that all agencies have limited benefit dollars to pay out. It is not in the best interest of the agencies to make it easy for claimants to collect. And it does not help in the least that many agency representatives do not understand their own rules and regulations. That is why it is so important to hire an advocate to help fight for you.
So like many things in life, you get what you pay for. We are proud of the assistance we have provided to countless families to obtain thousands of dollars in benefits. And we are confident that those families would regard the legal counseling and advice we provided as a wise investment.
If you have any questions about the issues presented above or care to discuss any other planning issues, please call us at 860-769-6938, visit our website at http://www.weatherby-associates.com or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.