Service, part 1.

A two-part post (if and when I get around to the second part) discussing two cases where I had a tricky situation–one involving a government agency and one involving a private company. Both ran over several months. One turned out very well, leaving me mostly feeling positive about the people involved. One turned out…well, unsatisfactorily or not at all.

I’m guessing some of you will make the wrong assumption as to which is which.

First, let’s talk about Social Security.

I postponed taking Social Security for a little over a year from when I was first eligible, because I thought it made sense to do so, based on sources I read and my own calculations.

Briefly: Just as you lose 8% forever if you start taking SS a year early, 16% two years early, and 24% three years early, you gain 8% if you start taking it a year late, 16% two years late, 24% three years late.

Taking it late is gambling that you’ll live more than 12 years past the point at which you do start taking it, since that’s how long it takes to make up for the payments you’ve missed. (Actually just a bit more than 12 years, but it’s close enough.) So, for example, postponing it to age 67 instead of 66 is gambling that you’ll live significantly past 79; at age 68, significantly past 80… Based on my own health and my family history, my wife & I thought the “significantly past 79″ was a good gamble.

Here’s where I should bitch about how terribly complex and tedious it is to apply for social security. Except that it isn’t–as with much of the Federal Government, the web site’s well-designed and the application process was remarkably smooth.

Not too long after sending in my application, I got the letter with the amount I was going to get. And, based on what I’d seen in the annual letters, it struck me that I wasn’t getting credit for the extra year–that the payment was somewhere between 7% and 8% below what it should be.

So I called the national number, waited for a while, and talked to somebody. Who basically agreed that it didn’t quite look right. A local agent called and, after some discussion, said “You’ll see the extra at the start of the new year.” That struck me as odd. I filed an appeal. Another local agent called, asked if I really wanted to appeal, repeated that it would probably show up at the start of the next year… and that I could then appeal after the start of the new year (2013). I looked carefully through the website again, and there was one place where the possibility of extra showing up in a new year was raised. So I held off.

When the new year began, I got another letter, indicating the cost-of-living increase. And nothing else.

So: Back to the national number. The agent did some calculations, once again said “that doesn’t quite sound right,” and said they’d flag my record, which meant the local office would get back to me–at which point I could appeal if I didn’t like the results. The agent also said something else I found telling: Basically, that they really didn’t have to deal with delayed applications very often…that, despite all the financial advisers suggesting that “if you can, you should postpone Social Security for a couple of years,” nobody seemed to be doing that. So, although this was never said, maybe the agents doing the local calculations just weren’t very familiar with the delay option…

It took a while–long enough that I once again called the national number again, and was told my account was still flagged. Then I got another letter. Which, as I did the calculations, raised my payments to within 1% of what I thought it should be. (And not paying the extra for the end of last year, which I still find odd but in this case truly trivial, but paying the extra for the first few months of this year.)

So: I’m happy. It took a little while and a couple of phone calls, but the people on the other end of the line always seemed polite, knowledgeable and out to help me, and in the end I was made whole.

Given the sheer number of accounts SSA has to deal with, the delay probably wasn’t unreasonable. I give them a Win on this situation.

[But then, I'm one of those who regard USPS service as nothing short of remarkable, especially given that U.S. postage prices are some of the lowest in the world; how they can handle Netflix cycles as fast as they do tells me a lot, and I'll choose them any time for package delivery as well. And I think CA DMV does pretty damn well, all things considered. So, you know, I'm a sucker for government services that perform well despite the obstacles they face, which I think is the case for most government services.]

This is the happy-ending story. The unhappy non-ending story? Maybe later. A little searching through the blog archives (“Panasonic” is the clue) may tell you what you need to know. And maybe no more–other than no, nobody ever did get back to me–is all that need be said.

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