Dear Savvy Senior:
When my neighbor applied for his retirement benefits last year, he found that Social Security had made some mistakes on his earnings record in past years, which caused him to get a monthly benefit check that was lower than it should have been. He never got it straightened out. How can I make sure this doesn't happen to me?
The best way to keep an eye on your Social Security benefits and avoid any possible mistakes is to carefully review your Social Security statement, which you can now do online.
Just go to ssa.gov/mystatement and answer a few questions to verify your identity, and then print your statement out on paper. If you're age 60 or older and not yet receiving benefits, your statement will actually be mailed to you about three months before your birthday.
Your Social Security statement lists your earnings record for each year of employment, and estimates the benefits you and your family may receive as a result of those earnings.
Once you get your statement in front of you, take some time to verify its accuracy by comparing the earnings listed on your statement with your own tax records or W-2 statements. And if you spot a discrepancy, follow these steps:
• Call your nearest Social Security office (see ssa.gov/locator or call 800-772-1213 to get the number) to report the error. Some corrections can be made over the phone, or you may need to schedule an appointment and go in with copies of your W-2 forms or tax returns to prove the mistake, or you can mail it in.
• If you suspect a discrepancy but don't have backup records, the Social Security Administration (SSA) may be able to use your employment information to search its records and correct mistakes. If the SSA can't locate your records, you'll need to contact the employer to obtain a copy of your W-2 for the year in question.
• Once your earnings record is corrected, SSA will send you a confirming letter. If you don't receive the confirmation within three months, contact them again, and double-check the correction by making sure it appears on your Social Security statement.
• If corrections aren't made on your statement start an appeals process (see ssa.gov/pubs/10041.html).
Social Security earnings miscalculations can also happen if there's a mistake in your current mailing address that the IRS has on file for you. Check your federal tax returns for this possible error, especially if you've moved recently.
To correct your address, contact the IRS at 800-829-3676 and ask them to mail you the "Change of Address" form 8822, or print it off at irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/f8822.pdf, fill it out and mail it back to the address on the form.
Other factors that can cause mistakes are if your name or date of birth in the SSA records isn't the same as it appears in the IRS files. Name mistakes most often occur for women who have changed their name following a marriage or divorce. So double check your Social Security statement for these possible mishaps, and if you notice an error call the 800-772-1213 and ask for Form SS-5, "Application for a Social Security Card," and submit it with the correct information. The form can also be downloaded at ssa.gov/online/ss-5.pdf.
Even when all the earnings data is correct, SSA occasionally errors in calculating benefits. If you think your benefits have been miscalculated (see ssa.gov/pubs/10070.html), point it out to your local Social Security office and ask them to recalculate. If they do find an error, make sure you receive a confirming letter and that the correction appears on your statement. If you're already receiving benefits, the SSA will reimburse you for the amount of the error.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.