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Use POMS to help your case with SSA

Recently a client asked me about a situation with her Social Security benefits. She had spoken with Social Security (SSA) several times and has received erroneous information each time. Below is how we used POMS to help her prove that she had benefits coming to her.

The individual in question is a divorcee (a year ago, after a 40 year marriage) who was born in 1953 (reaching 66 this month). The ex-husband has been collecting Social Security benefits for several years. 

She’s heard about the restricted application for folks born before 1954, and it seems as if this should fit her situation. However, in speaking with SSA about it, she’s been told that she is not eligible for spousal benefits via a restricted application because it has not been 2 years since her divorce (it’s now been about 14 months).

While what SSA told her would be true in some cases, the fact that her ex-husband is already receiving benefits overrides the 2-year waiting period for independent entitlement. This is all well and good to know, but how does she prove this to SSA?

This is where we go to POMS. In case you’re not familiar with POMS, it’s a database of the Social Security Program Operations Manual System. Within POMS are all of the rules and procedures that are used to implement all of the different programs and facets that Social Security administers. You can find it by clicking on this POMS table of contents link.

Specifically for this case, we’re looking at the POMS page indexed as RS 00202.005 Divorced Spouse, Section B. Within section B we find the following information:

B. Policy – Entitlement Requirements

   1. Divorced Spouse

       To be entitled as a divorced spouse, a claimant must:

    1. be the divorced spouse of a NH entitled to a RIB or DIB

(I removed the parenthetical references to clarify)

Following is some more clarifying information about the POMS reference above:

NH – stands for NumberHolder – this is someone who has a Social Security Number assigned to them. In this case, it is referring to the ex-husband as the NH.

RIB or DIB – means Retirement Insurance Benefit or Disability Insurance Benefit. Since the ex-husband has been receiving retirement benefits for several years, he’s “entitled to a RIB”.

Because of this, as long as the individual fits in with the rest of the requirements listed in the Section B, she is eligible for the ex-spouse benefit via a restricted application.

Don’t let Section B.1.e trip you up – the words “entitled to” mean that the individual has filed an application for the RIB or DIB. Since she has not filed for RIB at this point, she is still eligible for the ex-spouse benefit, via restricted application, since she was born before 1954. This is regardless of the amount of her own RIB when compared to the ex-spouse benefit.

To SSA, there is a distinctly different meaning between the words “eligible for” and “entitled to”. “Eligible for” means you meet the requirements for a benefit except for filing an application. “Entitled to” means you’ve filed an application for the benefit.

In Section C you’ll find the definition which includes the 2-year waiting period. However, Section C does not apply in this case since Section B applies to the client.

Use POMS to help your understanding

You can use POMS to help you better understand how SSA’s rules work. But don’t expect to just simply open it up and find your answer. POMS is a large system, encompassing more than 15,400+ pages. I know this, because I am reading through all of the pages, and I’m indexing the pages as I read them (I’ve read through almost 7,000 pages so far). And I learn something new every time I sit down to work on this read-through. On top of this, POMS is an ever-evolving system, with changes being applied nearly every day. (Most of the day-to-day changes are for clarification or to simplify wording or update annual figures, but sometimes actual policy changes are implemented via a POMS update.)

The point is that POMS is the official manual which SSA uses to implement their policies and rules. So if you spend time learning about your unique situation and the rules that apply to it, you can be in a much better position to ensure that the rules will be applied properly to your situation. If SSA disagrees with your expected outcome, you can ask the SSA staff to direct you to the POMS section that applies. That way you can view for yourself how they’re applying the rule. If you’ve found some other reference that seems to contradict, ask the SSA folks about this. These are your benefits after all, you deserve to understand the rules they’re applying to you.

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