Albert Einstein said, “Bureaucracy is the death of all sound work.”
For many who moved to Cuenca, they have worked for decades, contributing money every paycheck to Uncle Sam because of FICA – the Federal Insurance Contributions Act. Most of us know it as Social Security, which was enacted in 1935.
Now retired in Cuenca, these people are collecting Social Security. They are getting their monthly stipends from the U.S. Treasury to their bank accounts in the United States.
There are others who are not eligible for Social Security as they have not reached the minimum age of 62. Joanna is a good example. And her story involves bureaucracy from afar. All her “sound work” was for naught.
Many Cuenca expats, like those in this story, can run into bureaucratic challenges with Social Security. We discuss some readily available solutions below.
Accessing Social Security
The Social Security Administration (SSA) requires one to log into their account to access any information concerning retirement funds from the government. For the longest time, one used the SSA’s portal to gain entry to their financial information.
Joanna and her husband were doing that when they lived in the United States. When they moved to Cuenca in January 2020, her husband quickly resolved any issues accessing his Social Security information as he needed to get his first “check” just five months later.
For Joanna, she did not do anything as her eligibility was five years later. There was no need at the time to get online for her Social Security information. But now, as 62 years of age was fast approaching, bureaucracy reared its ugly head. While her husband was getting everything he needed online, access for Joanna was an impossibility from Cuenca.
When Joanna tried to log on (as she had always done in the United States), a layer of security thwarted her efforts. The website wanted to text Joanna a code to the telephone number on file with the Social Security Administration. She still had that phone number, but it had been ported over to magicJack, a VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phone service. Texting was not possible to her North Carolina telephone number.
At this point, Joanna was forced to call SSA at 800-772-1213. Needless to say, a recording was heard for about an hour. Once in a while, a message would come on that said how sorry the governmental agency was for the wait. It blamed the 69 million people on Social Security.
The music wasn’t bad, but the wait was tiring. When a helpful representative came on the line, she said that nothing could be done with the current account. “I can’t even see your password,” the representative told Joanna.
It has been said that bureaucracy is an organism. It was alive and well in Washington, DC. The only solution was to jettison the old SSA account for a new one.
In Cuenca, Ecuador.
Creating a new Social Security account
Joanna was told to create a new account at login.gov, a single sign-on portal for all federal accounts and agencies. It went online in April 2017 for Americans to use the same username and password for the federal government.
Joel Minton, a member of the U.S. Digital Service, and Tom Mills, the Chief Technology Architect at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, wrote seven years ago, “Login.gov makes it easy and intuitive for users to choose a username and password, and to set up multifactor authentication by using their phone numbers or an authenticator application.”
It wasn’t easy for Joanna. The first roadblock was that her email address would not be accepted. The government’s website said Joanna’s email address was already being used. To circumvent this bureaucracy, she ended up submitting a little-used and very old email address. The first step was finally overcome.
The website took Joanna all over the place as she tried to get a new account. Through all the confusion and roadblocks, Joanna did not know her username. She asked the website to send it to her. It only gave her a link to sign in, and the website’s profile information did not provide a username.
Somehow or another, Joanna figured it all out despite Login.gov being “easy and intuitive for users.” She has accessed what her future monthly payments will be, and Joanna can get to the online request form for payments to begin at 62 years of age.
U.S. Embassy representatives coming to Cuenca
For those who do not want to deal with bureaucracy over the phone or attempt to deal with the tangled web, you can do it in person. On September 1st and September 2nd, the U.S. Embassy in Quito and the U.S. Consulate General in Guayaquil will have representatives from the Regional Federal Benefits Unit in Cuenca.
At the Abraham Lincoln Center, Calle Borrero 5-18 y Honorato Vásquez, they will be offering their services to beneficiaries or individuals with questions regarding not only Social Security benefits and issues, but other federal benefits.
Documents to bring
If you are applying for Social Security benefits, the government is asking you to bring originals and copies of the following for all applicants: Birth Certificate, U.S. Passport (if applying for auxiliary benefits or survivor’s benefits marriage and/or death certificates). The government does not say how many copies are needed.
For Social Security card applications, you will need to bring a copy of your valid U.S. passport, Certificate of Birth Abroad or original birth certificate and a completed SS-5FS form, which can be obtained online.
For those changing their address, bring your current passport.
The Regional Federal Benefits Unit will be able to handle your Medicare Part B enrollment or cancellation. To enroll in Medicare, you should complete and sign CMS-40B, which is available online. If you want to cancel your enrollment, you need to complete and sign CMS-1763. That is available online, too.
It should be noted that in most situations, Medicare won’t pay for healthcare or supplies you get outside the United States. This means anywhere other than the 50 states of the U.S., the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands.
This governmental health coverage is no good in Ecuador. That is why many Americans are dropping their Medicare Part B once they are living in Cuenca.
And if you are not 65 years of age, you will automatically get Medicare Part B once you are of age. You have three months prior to your 65th birthday to opt out of Medicare Part B, which is approximately $180 per month.
Schedule an appointment
To schedule an appointment, send an email to: [email protected] with the subject line, “APPOINTMENT SSA – Ecuador.” In the text portion of the email, include your name, Social Security number, telephone, full residency address, and the service you require from the Regional Federal Benefits Unit.
Here is another helpful tip: Many retirees do not know that financial advisors in the U.S. are prepared to assist with Social Security planning and website mechanics because Social Security income is a major component of most of their clients’ retirement plans. If you do not have one, it may be worth checking with several fellow retirees in the U.S. for their recommendations. Forbes has these suggestions for finding a Financial Advisor
It is advisable to work with an individual professional vs. a big fund management company for this level of service and attention. If you have a U.S. address and invest an IRA or even a small amount of unqualified funds with one, you should expect assistance with those aspects of Social Security, as well as overall retirement strategy without an extra fee beyond the 1% annual portfolio management fee.
Photos by Stephen Vargha