The workings of the U.S. Social Security Administration can be clouded by jargon and bureaucracy. Check these sites for answers to big questions and how to deal with those bureaucrats.
• The retirement "estimator" at Social Security's SSA.gov site will give you a ballpark number for what you can expect in those benefits at retirement. The estimator uses your own information on record with the Social Security Administration. Other links from the same page will estimate your life expectancy and tell you how to begin an online application for benefits.
• You can begin receiving Social Security payments at 62, but your checks will be bigger if you wait to a later age. In a video at the Los Angeles Times, consumer columnist David Lazarus explains a little-known fact: If you change your mind within 12 months of starting payments, "you can give the money back and get the clock going again" to qualify for larger payments when you are older. The trick, of course, is having the money to return.
• Another planning page back at SSA.gov could be helpful, but it gets complicated fast. For example, the monthly hit you'll take by starting to receive payments at 62 will differ depending on when you were born — the later your birth date, the less you get at 62. Meanwhile, the age at which people qualify for a full Social Security benefit gets higher and higher — people born in 1937 were the last to qualify on the day they turned 65.
• Legal Q&A forum Avvo.com has this older post on "rules for dealing with the Social Security Administration." It includes tips on when to call the administration to avoid the longest waits. Other suggestions: Ask for a direct telephone number from the claims rep when you finally do talk to one; take and keep notes; and don't give up. Also, "A trip to the Social Security office often works wonders in solving problems."
• More tips for going mano-a-mano with the Social Security Administration — starting with "You can't get money if you don't apply" — are available from the office of Illinois Legal Aid. In the event of a denial, such as on an application for disability benefits, "In almost all cases, it is better to appeal than to wait and then to file a new application."