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How Murphy's Law Applies to Government Benefits

In keeping with the general atmosphere of 2020, I was researching the origin of Murphy’s Law on a coffee break between clients. We are all familiar with the prediction in question that is either pessimistic or realistic, depending on your personality. “If anything can go wrong, it will.” Urban legend has developed a host of corollaries:

  • Nothing is as easy as it looks.

  • Everything takes longer than you think.

  • If more than one thing can go wrong, the one that causes the most damage will.

  • If there is a worse time for something to happen, it will happen then.

I have a great deal of respect for the people, who work at Social Security, and most of whom are knowledgeable, caring professionals, who do a sometimes thankless job that is definitely harder than is looks and takes longer than anyone would think. Social Security runs according to something called the Program Operations Manual System (POMS). While I have never heard of a hard copy of POMS, it probably runs to the multi-volume length of the old World Book Encyclopedia, for those of you who remember. To get a sense of it, you can look here:!OpenView. Clicking on any one of the headings will take you down a rabbit hole of chapters and sub-chapters. You can find a detailed explanation, description, or calculation of almost any Social Security-related situation in the POMS, but it might take hours to find what you are looking for. It would certainly take the better part of one’s adult life to read and digest the whole thing. And it is constantly being updated. In summary, no one who works at Social Security could be expected to have the whole POMS at the fingertips.

As a result, it is not unlikely that you will get different answers to the same Social Security-related question, depending on whom you ask. The probability of getting a correct answer rely not only on the seniority of the person answering, but also of the frequency with which s/he has handled the issue(s) in question, if ever. Since approximately 67% (3,799,000 for 2019) of Social Security claims relate to retirees and their beneficiaries while only 18% (1,015,000 for 2019) relate to people with disabilities and their beneficiaries, as a person with a disability, you may end up talking to someone, who has very little experience with your benefits, their eligibility requirements, and the exceptions. I have developed my own set of laws, pertaining to government benefits:

  • The chance that any documents sent to Social Security will be misplaced, is directly correlated to their importance for your case. If you drop them off, get a written receipt. If you post them, use return-receipt post. If you fax them, call to make sure they arrived.

  • The accuracy of the data that the SSA records has a low correlation to the frequency and accuracy with which you send it. Review it yourself regularly.

  • If there is any way to lock yourself out of your “My Social Security Account”, you will find it by accident. Always have an alternative way to provide important documents.

  • The chance of you speaking to an agent, who truly understands the disability side of things in inversely proportional to the complexity of your situation. Do not play “agent roulette” by walking in (when COVID-19 protocol again permits walk-ins) Call and tell the office exactly what you need to do and set an appointment to come in.

  • The probability that the entries to the online application will explain your disability situation is 0%. Instead, start the online application to establish the earliest possible date for any retroactive payments, subsequent to a delayed decision. Then, prepare a boatload of supporting documents to discuss with a live agent.

  • The longer the letter from Social Security, the farther you will need to read to find the actual reason for the letter. You may be panicking for nothing, or you may not be panicking enough. Find an expert and save your sanity.

  • Relying on the simplified Social Security publications designed for the lay audience is a lot like relying on the long-term weather forecast. The big picture will be accurate, but the devil is in the details and the timing. Research it in the POMS or have someone do that for you.

Several origin tales for Murphy’s law, for example, are here and here. The stories of how Murphy’s Law originated suggest that the phrase emerged not a as pessimistic prediction of doom but rather as a cautious and conscientious call to prepare for every foreseeable eventuality. I take the same approach, when I assist clients to understand and maintain their Social Security benefits.

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