A local man's fight at the Social Security office reveals spousal benefits you may not know about

Posted at 10:39 AM, Aug 23, 2018
and last updated 2019-01-11 11:54:25-05

5 On Your Side Investigators have a story that could impact anyone who's taking care of an elderly loved one or if you are getting Social Security. When it comes to spousal benefits, do you really know what you’re entitled to?

News 5 Investigators are digging deeper into this issue, and we need your feedback. Click here to fill out a brief form.

"This money belongs to us...the social security recipient,” said Don Wright who is nothing if not passionate about his mission now to help others. “It’s our money!” he said.

We asked, “Do you think many people know about this?”

“No. No. That is sad,” he replied.

Don's story

Wright is from Akron. He was married to a woman for 16 years. They divorced and later she passed away. Then in 2009, Wright said he filed for his Social Security benefits, talking with a staff member at the Akron office.

"He said this famous statement. ‘Well, who do you want to collect your benefits from?’” Wright recalled. He said the man offered him either his own benefits or his ex-wife's benefits. "What he should have said was 'Well, you know you're entitled to collect your survivor widower's benefits first,’" said Wright.

It wasn't until 2016 when some friends told Wright to look into the survivor benefits. "Social security, I found out in my investigation, does not willfully just hand out a bunch of information for you to know," claimed Wright.

He told us from that first meeting with the Akron office in 2009 until 2016, he was entitled to seven to eight years of the survivor benefits and more. However, after fighting for that money, he got a message from an attorney's office on his answering machine saying he might get six months to a year of benefits.

"The average person would think Social Security said, 'You're done! There's no way in the world you can get anything else.’ Well, that's not true,” said Wright.

Perseverance is key

We found in the social security Code of Federal Regulations there's an admission that agents "may have given you misinformation about your eligibility for such benefits... Which caused you not to file an application at that time." It even gives examples that are similar to Wright’s claims.

"You don't always get that correct answer right off (the bat),” said Marcia Margolius, who is an attorney and a social security law expert. She works in Cleveland.

"We have to encourage people continuously to persevere, to follow up on their rights,” said Margolius.

Margolius told us she's experienced plenty of Social Security roadblocks. "It's a weeding out sort-of a policy where social security may take the attitude of, if you're serious and if your claim is legitimate, you're going to keep going," she said.

"Is it a strategy by Social Security?” we asked.

“I wouldn't go that far…but I have seen it a lot,” Margolius told us.

Wright said another hurdle was when Social Security gave him a list of lawyers to help him through the process. He wrote letters to those attorneys only to have many returned to sender. We saw the envelopes marked “no such number,” “address vacant,” and “not deliverable.”

"And I kept getting all these dead ends and nobody to help me,” Wright said.

What the SSA has to say

5 On Your Side Investigators contacted the Social Security Administration. A representative said if Wright signed a consent form, then the rep could talk to us about his case. Wright did that. However, later the rep "respectfully declined" an interview.

Here’s the full statement sent to 5 On Your Side Investigators:

Social Security takes its responsibility to provided excellent customer’s service very seriously. We cannot comment on Mr. Wright’s case because it is currently under appeal. However, we continue to look into the allegations you have raised. In general, if an individual is the widow or widower of a person who worked long enough under Social Security, they can receive full benefits at full retirement age for survivors or reduced benefits as early as age 60. Retroactivity involves all months before the month of filing that the claimant is eligible to receive benefits. Our decision to allow retroactivity depends on the type of benefit, and whether we reduce benefits for age. For more information on SSA’s policy on retroactivity, please refer to our website at [] .

Individuals who may be eligible for widow’s or widower’s benefits need to contact Social Security right away to file a claim. They may call our toll free number at 1-800-772-1213 (If they are deaf or hard of hearing, call our TTY number at 1-800-325-0778) or find their local Social Security office at [].

We recognize the importance of Social Security programs for workers and their families. It is necessary to let them know about benefits that they are entitled to receive, and how they should file for them in a timely manner. We use various ways to publicize our programs, such as:

  • Social Security Online, our Internet website, which can be accessed at []; you can get answers to frequently asked questions, file an application for benefits, and manage your benefits using our secure and easy to use my Social Security account;
  • Public information announcements in the media;
  • Senior citizens publications; and
  • Presentations to various community groups.

We hope that Mr. Wright will find future contacts with our offices more satisfactory.

Doug Nguyen

Regional Communications Director

Social Security Administration

Chicago Region

Important forms

"A lot of senior citizens need to get their ears open right now is what I'm telling you,” said Wright. He told us there are two very important forms to fill out correctly when it comes to survivors’ benefits. They are SSA-1724-F-4 and SSA-721.

Through Wright's tenacity, he settled with Social Security and is getting some of the money he's owed. And after that lawyer-assistance problem, Wright is now representing himself in court for the other funds he has said he deserves. Wright told us there have been more roadblocks during that process as well.

"Social Security needs to do a better job to inform the people and they need to do a better job now," said Wright.

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