Birthdays and benefits: A nudge on Social Security

Bradley C Bower/AP - Your birthday is a good time to remember to get your Social Security statement, especially since the agency stopped automatically mailing them annually to most people.

I just had a birthday and decided to take a look at my Social Security statement.

But I’ll be honest about how I came to even remember I should check it. I was looking around the Social Security Administration’s Web site, trying to help my husband find some payment information for his elderly father, when I realized I hadn’t signed up to get my statement online.

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In the past, I would have received the statement in the mail about three months before my birthday. But in a cost-cutting move, the agency decided last year to stop the automatic mailing of statements except in a few situations. It decided to mail paper statements to workers in the year they reach age 25. It’s a one-time mailing and has started with people who turn 25 in October, an agency spokesperson said. Additionally, people 60 and older receive a mailed statement if they haven’t begun receiving Social Security benefits. Everyone else has to get his or her statement online.

In planning for your retirement, it’s important to check the statement at least once a year because it lists your lifetime earnings according to Social Security’s records. And a question I received from a reader is a good reminder why you need to keep checking the statement. She wrote: “I got some sort of yearly statement from the SSA listing the number of years of my employment and estimated benefit amounts I’d be eligible for. But I never really paid attention to the statement. Upon examination, I notice that I’m only being credited with about a third of the years I actually worked. Is it possible to get this corrected with Social Security?”

Your benefits are based on your average lifetime earnings. If your earnings record is inaccurate, you may not get all the benefits you are entitled to receive.

And your earnings information could be incorrect for a number of reasons. Your employer may have reported wrong earnings information or used an incorrect name or Social Security number. Or perhaps you got married or divorced but didn’t report the change.

If you discover income information that is incorrect, you’ll need to find some proof of what you earned. This could be a W-2 form, an old tax return or a pay stub. After you have gathered your proof, contact Social Security. If you can’t find proof, you may still be able to get the record corrected by providing Social Security with the dates you worked and your employer’s name.

You can get your statement online at www.socialsecurity.gov. Please be careful about typing in the Web address. You don’t want to end up on some scam site. Once you’re on the official SSA site, look under “Top Services” for the new link to get your statement.

You have to be 18, and you have to answer questions that match information already on file with Social Security. The agency also uses information from the Experian credit bureau to verify your identity. When I registered, some of my security questions pertained to past loans.

Once verified, you need to create an account with a user name and password. It took me less than 15 minutes to go through the verification process and set up my account. I could then view my report, download it or print it. You can view your Social Security statement at any time. In addition to retirement and disability benefits you may receive, you’ll see estimates of benefits your family may get when you receive Social Security and information about qualifying and signing up for Medicare.

Now, you know technology doesn’t always work the way you like. So you may have trouble getting your statement because you didn’t answer the security questions correctly or your answers don’t match the information Social Security has on file about you. Or the information in your credit report is wrong, so it doesn’t match your answers. You still have the option of requesting that it be mailed. You can also visit a local Social Security office and present an ID to create an account and gain access to the online version of the statement.

You might be annoyed about having to add yet another thing to your long financial to-do list. Nonetheless, your birthday is a good time to remember to get your Social Security statement each year.

Write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Or e-mail: singletarym@washpost.com.

 
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