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Retirement Hacks: You could be getting the wrong Social Security benefit check – here’s how to fix it

Want to get the most out of your Social Security retirement benefits? Make sure your work history and statements are correct. 

Retirement Tip of the Week: Look over your Social Security statements to ensure your information is correct, including your wage history and personal details. This will prevent headaches when it’s time to claim, especially if your work history is incorrect and results in a lower payment every month. 

Social Security retirement benefits are calculated using an individual’s highest 35 years of earnings, which means anyone who has worked for longer would only see those peak wages in their record. Anyone who worked less than 35 years would see a reduced benefit. 

(These requirements are not to be confused with the 10 years a person must work to be eligible for the Social Security Administration’s retirement benefits.)

When earnings history is incorrect, beneficiaries may see a reduced amount in their monthly Social Security checks. One SSA inspector general report found $1.2 trillion between 1937 and 2012 wasn’t credited to beneficiaries because of reporting errors, according to AARP.  

There are a few types of errors, including misstated earnings, or just missing work history overall. Employers may have reported income incorrectly, or used the wrong Social Security number and name with the Social Security Administration. In some instances, the mistakes happen if individuals changed their names and didn’t inform the Social Security Administration.

Workers can catch these errors quickly if they have an online Social Security Administration account. They should also check their work history regularly, such as once a year.  

Once an error has been found, find evidence of the mistake (such as a W-2 or tax return stating the correct earnings amount) and report it to the Social Security Administration immediately, which will “work with you to correct your record,” the agency said. 

Sometimes, you may not be able to find supporting documentation, in which case, you should write down as much information as you do remember, including the name of your employer, the dates you worked, how much you earned and the name and Social Security number you used when you were employed there, the administration said. It will try to reach out to these employers to get the correct information, but the process can be lengthy. 

The sooner the mistake is found, the easier it will be to fix. The Social Security Administration states earnings records “can be corrected any time up to three years, three months and 15 days after the year in which the wages were paid or the self-employment income was derived.” After that time limit, earnings can only be corrected in special circumstances, such as correcting the information to align with tax returns showing the correct wages or self-employment income, or if an investigation into the error began before the time limit ends. 

Along with the Social Security Administration’s website, workers looking to correct their earnings history can call the agency at 1-800-772-1213. An automated service is available 24 hours a day, but a representative will be able to assist between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. You may experience a long wait period, the administration warned.

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