What is a Direct Express card and how does it work?

A Direct Express card is a type of debit card that can be used to access your Social Security benefits immediately. If you participate in the program, your benefits are deposited directly onto the Direct Express card. You no longer have to wait for a paper check or even have a bank account. 

There are pros and cons to this program. One positive attribute is that the transactions are more secure than the traditional paper check. Your card is protected by a Personal Identification Number (PIN) so only you should be able to access the funds. If your card is ever lost or stolen, you can pay a small fee to receive a replacement. The funds on the card are FDIC-insured just as those in a bank account would be. Another positive aspect of the card is that using it is easy and convenient. You can make purchases with the debit card anywhere MasterCard is accepted. You can withdraw cash at any retail company, bank, or ATM where MasterCard is accepted. 

Some of the drawbacks of the Direct Express card are that certain transactions will cost you a fee, and some of the things you can do for free with a traditional bank account may also cost additional fees if you use the card instead. For example, if you want a monthly paper statement by mail, you will be charged a small fee per month for this service. You will also be charged if you transfer money from the card into a bank account, and there is a charge if you use the card at an ATM to withdraw cash more than once a month. However, there are many ways to avoid the extra fees if you decide to participate. For example, instead of receiving a monthly paper statement you can access your account online and print it free of charge. You can also get cash-back from retail locations rather than using an ATM.  

You can sign up for the card by calling Direct Express at 1 (800) 333-1795. You can sign up online at http://www.fiscal.treasury.gov/GoDirect. You can also get help signing up through your local Social Security office.  

For more information, see: Social Security Online, Get Your Benefit Payment Through the Direct Express Card, http://www.ssa.gov/pubs/10073.html (last visited June 8, 2015); Direct Express, http://www.fiscal.treasury.gov/GoDirect (last visited June 8, 2015).

I received a notice that the Social Security Administration made an overpayment to me, and now it wants the money back. Do I have to pay back the money even though the overpayment was not my fault?

Essentially, yes. You may have accidentally received an overpayment on your Social Security benefits for several reasons. However, just because the SSA accidentally gives too much money to you does not mean you can automatically keep it. Regardless of whose fault it is, Social Security has the right to collect any overpayment. 

Social Security may ask you to voluntarily return the overpayment. If you do not return the overpayment, SSA may deduct the amount of overpayment from your benefits. If the overpayment is not your fault, SSA can set up a program in which you pay it back in installments. SSA would only take out a portion of your monthly check until the overpayment is paid back. That way you are not hit with the whole amount at one time. 

In addition, if Social Security finds an overpayment, it can stop benefits to anyone who is receiving payments based on that person’s earnings. For example, say Social Security finds that there was an overpayment to your deceased spouse during his or her life. If you are receiving survivor benefits based on your spouse’s earnings, SSA can stop or reduce payments to you until the overpayment is returned. 

If you receive a notice of overpayment, you have a couple of options. One option is to ask for a reconsideration. (See http://www.ssa.gov/online/ssa-561.pdf (last visited June 8, 2015). This is a kind of preliminary appeal claiming that you did not get the overpayment or that you should not have to return it for some reason. This appeal should be made to your local Social Security Administration office. Social Security will review your case and see if there was in fact an overpayment. If you ask for an appeal within 10 days, your benefit payments will continue unaffected until a decision is made on the appeal. Even if you miss the 10-day deadline, you can still file an appeal but you must do it within 60 days of the time you receive the notice of overpayment.  

Another option you may consider is to request a waiver of recovery. (See http://www.ssa.gov/online/ssa-632.pdf (last visited June 8, 2015). The waiver of recovery will state that it would be too difficult for you to pay back the overpayment. There is no time limit on filing for a waiver. In fact, you can even request a waiver after you have paid off the overpayment. However, the sooner you file the sooner the situation can be resolved. You can request the waiver and the reconsideration at the same time. 

It is important to know that any overpayment that is less than $1000 is automatically waived the first time if you ask for it and you were not at fault. That means that Social Security can ask for it back, but if you request a waiver, it will be granted automatically. You simply have to call the Social Security Administration and the recovery should be waived. 

It is not usually worth the administrative costs for the Social Security Administration to pursue overpayments that are less than this amount. So, you can avoid the collection of $1000 the first time by simply asking for the waiver. However, if it happens a second time, the waiver is not granted automatically. Also, you cannot waive a $1000 portion of an overpayment. For instance, if you receive a $1500 overpayment, you cannot pay $500 and then waive the remaining $1000. 

For anything over $1000, the Social Security Administration cannot collect the overpayment if it would be against “equity and good conscience” and it was not your fault. With respect to fault, just because it was Social Security’s mistake does not mean that you are without fault. If you realized that you were getting too much and just kept it, then you are not without fault. You are required to report any overpayment to Social Security. 

If you are without fault, you must also show that collection of the overpayment would be against “equity and good conscience.” This means that you would not have enough money to live on if they collected from your benefits. You are entitled to an oral hearing to determine if this is true. If Social Security finds that you cannot afford to pay back the overpayment, then they cannot collect. 

If you receive a notice of overpayment, you must promptly request an appeal. Any request that you make by phone must be followed up with a written request. If you miss the 60-day deadline, you may be stuck with Social Security’s decision. If you need assistance appealing an overpayment, contact an attorney. 

For more information, see: 42 U.S.C. § 404 (2015); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.502, 404.506-.509, 404.905, 404.909 (2015); 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.550-.558 (2015); Social Security Online, Chapter 19: Underpayments and Overpayments; Califano v. Yamasaki, 442 U.S. 682, 61 L.Ed.2d 176 (1979); Joan M. Krauskopf et al., Elderlaw: Advocacy for the Aging §§ 15.63-.67 (2nd ed. 1993, 2011-2012 Supplement); Social Security Online, Overpayments, http://www.ssa.gov/ssi/text-overpay-ussi.htm (last visited June 8, 2015).

What is a representative payee, and can the Social Security Administration make me have one?

A representative payee is someone who receives your Social Security benefits. Your representative payee is required to use your Social Security payments for your benefit. Normally, the Social Security Administration (SSA) sends your check directly to you. However, if SSA finds that it would be in your best interest, SSA will appoint a person or entity to act as your representative payee and send your check to that party. 

The representative payee is required to use the benefits for your current maintenance. This means they must use the money for your food, shelter, clothing, etc. A representative payee can be a spouse, a relative, a legal guardian, a non-profit organization, or a nursing home. A creditor of yours cannot be a representative payee except in very limited circumstances. SSA ranks potential representative payees in an order of preference. For instance, your spouse would be preferred over a nursing home. 

Many laws exist that govern the actions of the representative payee. These laws and regulations are designed to prevent a representative payee from fraudulently spending your money. 

SSA presumes that any adult can manage his/her own affairs; however, SSA will accept evidence to determine if you are incapable of handling your monthly benefits. You do not have to be legally incompetent for SSA to appoint a representative payee.  

SSA must inform you of its decision to appoint a representative payee and the name of the potential representative. You may object to either of these decisions. SSA will then review your objection and make a determination. If you disagree with the determination, you can ask for a reconsideration. The reconsideration decision may also be appealed. 

If you want to appeal a decision to appoint a representative payee, or believe that you are the victim of fraud by your representative payee, you may contact your local SSA office or an attorney. 

For more information, see: 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.2001-.2065 (2015); Joan M. Krauskopf et al., Elderlaw: Advocacy for the Aging § 15.94 (2nd ed. 1993); Social Security Online, Representative Payee Program, http://www.socialsecurity.gov/ssi/text-repayee-ussi.htm (last visited June 8, 2015), http://www.socialsecurity.gov/pubs/10097.html (last visited June 8, 2015).

Can my pension affect the amount of Social Security benefits I receive?

Maybe. A pension may reduce your Social Security benefits in two ways. The first way is through the “windfall elimination provision.” This provision applies to people who worked for an employer who did not withhold FICA (Social Security) taxes, such as a government agency, and who also worked at other jobs where they paid Social Security taxes long enough to qualify for Social Security benefits. It also may affect you if you earned a pension from employment in a foreign country. 

The second way your pension may reduce your benefits is the “government pension offset.” Due to this provision, your Social Security spouse or widow’s benefits may be reduced if you receive a pension from a federal, state or local government based upon work where you did not pay Social Security taxes. As a result, your spouse or widow(er) benefits may be reduced by two-thirds of the amount of your government pension. 

Certain exceptions to both provisions are available. To find out if your pension will affect your Social Security benefit amounts, contact the Social Security Administration office in your area or see the official Social Security web site at http://www.ssa.gov. For information about the windfall elimination provision, see http://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10045.pdf (last visited June 8, 2015). For more information about the government pension offset, see http://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10007.pdf (last visited June 8, 2015).  

For more information, see: Social Security Online, http://www.ssa.gov (last visited June 8, 2015).

Can I continue working while on SSDI?

Maybe. Social Security sets the maximum amount that you can be making at the time you apply for benefits at $1090 a month, or $1820 if you are blind. If you are making more than that, you will not be eligible to apply for Social Security Disability Benefits.  

Once you apply for SSDI and are given the benefits, you are given a 9 month trial work period to see if you can continue working. During the trial period, you will receive your full Social Security Benefits, regardless of how much you earn, as long as you report your work activity and continue to have a disabling impairment. After the trial work period is over, you have 36 months that you can continue workings and receiving benefits, so long as you are not earning what Social Security considers substantial gainful activity. In 2015, Social Security considered your earnings to be a substantial gainful activity if you were making more than $1090 a month, or $1820 if you are blind. Be aware that the figures for what is considered substantial gainful activity change every year.  

If your benefits stop because you are earning above the substantial gainful activity amount, you will have a five year period in which you can ask Social Security to reinstate your benefits immediately if you find that you are unable to continue working because of your condition. You will not need to file a new disability application, and you will not have to wait for your benefits to start while your medical condition is being reviewed to make sure you are still disabled.  

Also, if you have work expenses that are related to your disability, those expenses can be deducted from your claimed earnings to possibly bring you under the substantial earnings mark. Expenses could include transportation to and from work, a wheelchair, specialized work equipment, counseling services, and prescription drug copays. These expenses can be deducted even if they also help you outside of work. 

For more information, see: 20 C.F.R. 416.971-976 (2015); Social Security Online: The Work Site, http://www.ssa.gov/work (last visited June 4, 2015); Social Security Online, Working While Disabled-How We Can Help, http://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10095.pdf (last visited June 4, 2015); Social Security Online, Your Ticket to Work, http://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10061.pdf (last visited June 4, 2015).

If I continue to work after I retire, how much can I earn without affecting my monthly Social Security benefit amount?

Under legislation passed in April 2000, Social Security withholds benefits if your earnings exceed a certain amount only if you retired before your normal retirement age. The normal retirement age is 65 for those born before 1938 and gradually increases to 67 for each year after 1937.  

If you retire on or after your normal retirement age, your benefits amount will not be affected by extra earnings, no matter how much you make. If you retire early and your earnings exceed a certain level your benefits will be reduced until you reach your normal retirement age. Your benefits may be reduced because of earnings before you reach your normal retirement age, but once you reach that age, your benefits will no longer be reduced if you work. However, it is important to remember that your benefits will still be reduced because you chose to retire early. 

If you retire early and continue to work, the amount your benefits will be reduced depends on how much you earn. Contact your local Social Security Administration office if you have any questions about how working past retirement will affect your benefits. You can also contact the SSA by calling 1 (800) 772-1213 or visit the website at http://www.ssa.gov

For more information, see: Social Security Online, Retirement Planner, http://www.ssa.gov/planners/retire/whileworking.html (last visited June 4, 2015); Social Security Online, Automatic Increases, http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/COLA/rtea.html (last visited June 4, 2015); 20 C.F.R. § 404.430 (2015).

What are Divorced Spouse benefits, and how do I become eligible to receive them?

You may be able to receive Divorced Spouse benefits based on your divorced spouse’s work record. You must have been formerly married for 10 years, divorced for at least two years, and be at least 62 years old. In addition, your former spouse must be at least 62 years old and eligible for retirement benefits, or receiving disability. You also must be unmarried. 

To receive divorced spouse benefits, you cannot be entitled to benefits on your own record that are 50% or more of what your former spouse’s full benefits are. For example, if you receive retirement benefits of $201 per month and your divorced spouse receives $400, you would not be eligible for benefits on your spouse’s record because $201 is more than 50% of $400. 

Even if your divorced spouse dies, you can still receive benefits if the above is true except for a few differences. You only have to be at least 60 years old, or 50 and disabled. You can still receive these benefits if you remarry after age 60. Furthermore, your benefits cannot be greater than your divorced spouse’s full benefits.

What are surviving spouse benefits and how do I become eligible to receive them?

If your spouse dies, you may be able to receive widow’s benefits. First, your spouse must have been eligible for retirement or receiving disability benefits. Second, you must meet a variety of additional requirements. You must meet one of the following conditions: 

•you were married to your spouse for nine months immediately before his/her death; 
•you were married for less than nine months and the death was accidental, or you were previously married for nine months; 
•you and your spouse had a natural child, or you adopted a child when the child was under the age of 18; or 
•in the month before your spouse’s death, you were entitled to or were receiving benefits based on your spouse’s earnings. 

If you meet one of the above conditions, then you must meet all of the following three requirements: 

•you are 60 years old, or 50 and disabled; 
•you are not receiving an entitlement equal or greater to the amount that your spouse received; and 
•you are unmarried. 

If you are also eligible for benefits based on your own record, you will receive the higher amount of benefits based on your record or benefits based on your spouse’s record, but not both. In addition, any income that you receive can decrease the amount of your benefits. 

You may be entitled to a lump-sum death payment. This is usually three times your spouse’s monthly benefits or $255, whichever is less. 

A note on Same Sex Couples: After the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 2013 that struck down a provision in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that defined marriage as between one man and one woman, the state of SSA spousal benefits for same sex couples is in flux. However, if you meet all of the other standards set forth by the SSA regarding benefits, you are encouraged to apply. By applying now, you set your application date which can in turn determine your start date for benefits once the legal issues surrounding same-sex couples are resolved on the national and state levels. 

For more information, see: 42 U.S.C. §§ 402(e), (f), (i) (2015); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.335, 404.338, 404.390-.392 (2015); Joan M. Krauskopf et al., Elderlaw: Advocacy for the Aging §§ 15.31-.34, 15.38 (2nd ed. 1993, 2011-2012 Supplement); Social Security Online, Survivors Planner, http://www.ssa.gov/planners/survivors/onyourown2.html (last visited June 4, 2015); Burks v. Apfel, 67 F.Supp.2d 1203 (1999), http://www.nclrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Post-DOMA_Social-Security.pdf. (Last visited on June 4, 2015). 


What are Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits and how do I become eligible to receive them?

SSI differs from SSDI in that SSI is a type of welfare program for disabled people. You do not have to have worked a certain amount of time in order to be eligible for SSI benefits. Instead, you must meet certain income and asset guidelines. Unlike Disability Insurance Benefits, there is no five-month waiting period before you can receive benefits, but you still must have either an impairment that has lasted or is likely to last at least 12 months, or be 65 or older.

What are Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, and how do I become eligible to receive them?

If you have physical or mental impairments that prevent you from working, you may be eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. This disability benefit is based on your work record. You must have worked 5 of the last 10 years to be eligible for disability benefits. 

If you have an impairment that has lasted, or is likely to last, at least 12 months and that prevents you from working, then you may be eligible for disability benefits. If you apply for disability benefits, there is a five-month waiting period before you can receive benefits. If you receive worker’s compensation, it could reduce the amount of disability benefits for which you are eligible.

What are Social Security Retirement Benefits, and how do I become eligible to receive them?

What people most commonly call “Social Security” is Social Security Retirement benefits. These benefits are based on either your work record, your deceased spouse’s work record, or your divorced spouse’s work record. If you have worked enough throughout your life, you can collect retirement benefits. These benefits are funded through the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) deductions in your payroll checks. If you have worked at least 40 quarters (10 years), you may be eligible for retirement benefits. 

The benefits can be collected after you reach your retirement age. If you were born before 1938, retirement age is 65. After that, the retirement age rises slightly depending on your age. The oldest retirement age is 67. You can start collecting early retirement benefits at age 62. However, your monthly benefits will be permanently lower than it would be if you had waited to retire until your retirement age because you are collecting them over a longer period of time. Theoretically, early retirement will give you approximately the same total Social Security benefits over your lifetime but in smaller amounts to take into account the longer period of time you will receive them. How much your benefits are reduced if you retire early will be based on how much earlier you stop working than your normal retirement age. The Social Security Administration has a calculator you can use to figure out the effect of your age on your retirement benefits at https://www.socialsecurity.gov/OACT/quickcalc/early_late.html.

If you have other income such as pension, or you continue to work after you reach your retirement age, your retirement benefits will be reduced. Your benefits will not be taken away totally, but depending on how much you earn, they can be reduced. 

Social Security Retirement benefits will not automatically be sent to you when you reach retirement age; you must apply for them. You may apply for benefits 3 months before you want the payments to begin. The earliest you may receive benefits is in the first full month you turn 62. This means payments will not start until the month after your 62nd birthday unless your birthday falls on the first or second day of the month.  

You can apply for benefits at your local Social Security Administration office, by calling 1 (800) 772-1213, or applying online at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/applyonline

For more information, see: Social Security Online, http://www.ssa.gov (last visited June 4, 2015); Social Security Online, Retirement Planner, http://www.ssa.gov/planners/retire/applying1.html (last visited June 4, 2015); Social Security Online, Retirement Age, http://www.ssa.gov/planners/retire/ageincrease.html (last visited June 4, 2015).

What is Social Security?

Social Security is the government program that provides benefits to eligible retirees, people with disabilities, divorced spouses, and survivors of relatives who have died. The program is primarily funded by taxes gleaned from worker’s paychecks.