Many of us don’t trust the government to always tell us the truth. There are inconvenient facts left out about the cause of wars, double-talk about the economy, and a maddening inconsistency when it comes to applying the law.
So why would you trust that same government to correctly calculate your Social Security benefits? This is one of the most complex formulas you’ll ever have to deal with in your life, and it’s based on 35 years of calculating your highest gross income.
For many, that means there are several decades of job reports, years when there were fluctuation in income, investment strategies that reflect years of trial and error — and we haven’t even begun to talk about divorces and other changes.
So it’s all a way of saying you should take the time to make sure that you’re getting every cent you’re entitled to get. After all, you earned it.
Make sure that you’re getting every cent you’re entitled to...
The Social Security Administration makes errors on roughly 3% of the total earnings records under its care, according to government watch groups. Worse, they’ve done away with mailing you annual updates. So if you want to make sure that everything is on track and you can safely stick that fishing pole in the water, it’s a good idea to check every six months; and make sure that what the SSA is calculating matches up with your own back-of-the-envelope pencil-pushing.
NEW WEB SITE
The SSA has launched a web site, www.socialsecurity.gov, that allows you to view your estimated Social Security earnings and benefits. You can also estimate disability and survivors benefits.
Before you access the site, you have to create an account at www.ssa.gov/mystatement. Be prepared to answer a lot of personal questions that will help the algorithms determine that you are the person owning the account. The folks at Experian run this site.
Your benefits reflect the 35 highest-earning years of your career that were reported t the government. If those figures are wrong, you may not get the money you are entitled to receive. Compare the earnings listed with the income on your W-2 forms.
WHEN YOU FIND AN ERROR
If you are one of the unlucky few who find that the SSA has erred, call the nearest Social Security office. You can find it by visit www.ssa.gov/locator. You can also call 800-772-1213.
Some things can be corrected over the phone, but you may have to spend a fun day at the SSA office going over your forms. You may even have to call a former employer to obtain a copy of your W-2 for the year in question.
Earnings errors can happen for reasons apart from miscalculations. Your mailing address may be incorrect; a change of name after a marriage or divorce may cause records to go astray; or your date of birth may be off. These can all happen for a number of reasons, including human error when the information is collected.
If there is a mistake in your address, you have to contact the Internal Revenue Service and ask them for a Change of Address form (the SSA relies on the IRS for that information) or visit www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/f8822.pdf.
The wheels of government will grind on as you fill it out and send it back. But eventually, the SSA will send you a confirmation letter, typically within three weeks.
But don’t presume everything is well even when that happens. Continue to check your statement and make sure that the correction has, in fact, been applied to your official statement. If it hasn't appeared, you can initiate an appeal with the SSA, who presumably will get a senior official to start throwing some thunderbolts on your behalf.
Even if all the earnings and addresses are correct, you might find an error in the benefits calculation. Yes, the math can be off. Fortunately, the SSA lets you access their secret formula so you can check their calculations. Visit www.socialsecurity.gov and have your calculator handy. If you find an error, you can ask the local office to make a correction. Again, make sure you receive a confirmation letter and stay on them. If you are already getting benefits they will make good on the missing amounts.