But nothing prepared him for the bureaucratic buzz saw known as Social Security.
While grieving after the death of his wife of 55 years, Fields, 80, spent nine months fighting for a benefit promised him by the agency. He got nowhere.
‘‘Every time I called, they said they were working on it, but they never got it done,’’ said Fields, a Newark resident and Korean War vet who played the trumpet in the army and later attended Rutgers University on the G.I. Bill. ‘‘It was very frustrating.’’
Estelle Fields died on Dec. 22, 2009, at age 73. Two days after her death, Herbert Fields called Social Security to inform the agency of his wife’s death.
The rep told Fields he was due for a one-time $255 death benefit, and it would be direct-deposited into the same bank account where he receives his regular Social Security payments.
It’s really what didn’t happen.
On Jan. 8, Fields received a letter from Social Security notifying him that he would be receiving the $255 benefit on or about Jan. 14.
Fields, not needing the money but expecting its arrival, checked his account. Nothing was there.
Before the month was out, Fields decided to spend a few months with his daughter Alicia Richardson and his new grandson in Houston.
In February, he called the agency. The rep told him the payment would be on the way, direct-deposited into his account.
February passed. Then March. Then April.
On April 21, Fields called yet again. The rep told him the funds would be traced.
But still, no word from the agency. He called again on May 24.
‘‘They told me the check was direct deposited. I asked to which account number, and they had the wrong account,’’ Fields said. ‘‘I don’t know where they got those numbers from, but they weren’t mine.’’
It wasn’t even at the same bank where Fields does business.
Social Security said it would take a few weeks, but the agency would investigate.
In June, Fields returned to Newark. Nearly a month passed with no word, so he called again on July 22. The rep said the payment was in “payment accounting,” and a new direct deposit was being processed.
Still, nothing. In August, Fields went back to Houston to be with his daughter.
On Sept. 21 Fields called again, and the rep said the direct deposit was processed months before, in May.
‘‘Dad had his bank statements in front of him and there was no direct deposit to his account,’’ Richardson said.
‘‘The rep told dad to gather all his bank statements from January until now and take them to Social Security, and ended the call by telling him ‘good luck.’ ”
Fields and Richardson wanted more than luck, and by now, it wasn’t about the money.
‘‘It’s the principle of it,’’ Fields said. ‘‘I’ve been kind of shuffled around.’’
They asked Bamboozled for help.
TRACKING IT DOWN
We called Social Security, hoping someone at the agency could track the mistaken payments and get this widower the benefit he was promised nine months before.
A week after we notified Social Security of the problem, Fields received a telephone call from the agency’s regional office, telling him to check his account again — and this time, the money was there.
Fields said the rep also apologized for the mix-ups and delays.
We asked the agency what went wrong.
‘‘We dropped the ball,’’ said spokesman Everett Lo.
Lo said the agency is taking a look internally with the employees who processed the transaction to see where the mistake originated.
‘‘The important thing was to make certain, especially during this difficult time for him, that he received what was due to him,’’ Lo said.
‘‘Certainly, we pride ourselves in customer service and this is one instance where he didn’t get the quality level of service he was entitled to.’’
Fields and his daughter say they’re just glad it’s over.
‘‘It’s a shame we had to go this route, all for $255,’’ Richardson said.
WHEN A DOC DIES
Monica Shostack needed a doctor’s appointment, so she tried to contact her physician — a sole practitioner — but he was gone.
‘‘I have no idea if he moved, retired, or died,’’ she wrote in an e-mail. ‘‘I have no idea where my medical records are.”
At Bamboozled’s suggestion, Shostack contacted the New Jersey State Board of Medical Examiners. It told her that indeed, the doctor had died, but that the board had no obligation to track patients’ medical records.
That would fall to the doctor’s estate, Shostack said she was told.
Shostack tried the doctor’s old office. It was deserted. Then she tried his old telephone number. It rang and rang and rang. Finally, someone answered.
‘‘I was very surprised to find out that it’s now a doctor’s office, and they have my medical records,’’ she said.
‘‘But I think it’s a dreadful shame that there isn’t anyone in charge of knowing what happens to medical records if the doctors die or move away in the middle of the night without telling anyone.’’
We wondered what kind of responsibility or obligation a doctor’s estate has regarding patient records, so we took the question to Jeff Lamm, spokesman for the Division of Consumer Affairs, which also covers the Board of Medical Examiners.
Doctors have to maintain patient records for seven years, Lamm said. After a doctor dies or otherwise stops practicing for more than three months, the executor of a sole practitioner’s estate would be responsible to:
1. Establish a procedure by which patients can obtain a copy of the treatment records or acquiesce in the transfer of those records to another licensee or health care professional who is assuming responsibilities of the practice. (Patients can’t be charged for copies of the records when such records will be used for purposes of continuing treatment or care.)
2. Publish a notice of the cessation and the established procedure for the retrieval of records in a newspaper of general circulation in the geographic location of the licensee’s practice, at least once each month for the first three months after the cessation.
3. Make reasonable efforts to directly notify any patient treated during the six months preceding the cessation, providing information concerning the established procedure for retrieval of records.
‘‘If the office has closed, there should be information posted on who to contact — another physician or the lawyer handling the estate,’’ said Lamm.
If nothing is posted or the telephone has been disconnected, contact the Board of Medical Examiners at (609) 826-7100 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There you have it.