THE COLOR OF MONEY

Check online Social Security account to avoid costly errors

 

By MICHELLE SINGLETARY The Washington Post

I’ve got a birthday coming up, and as a gift to myself, I checked my Social Security statement.

If you ask, I'll say I’m 29. But truth be told, I’m getting pretty close to retirement age. (By the way, this doesn’t mean I'll stop working when the time comes. Just means I won’t be working as hard as I do now.)

It used to be that a few months before each birthday, you would get a statement from the Social Security Administration with your estimated benefit if you elected to take it early, at 62, at your full retirement age (it’s 67 for me), or if you waited until you turned 70. You would also see the estimated amount you would get if you became disabled, in addition to information about spousal and survivor benefits. Although you don’t find out your true amounts until you actually apply for benefits, you need to have an idea of how much you'll get from Social Security.

In a cost-saving move, the agency stopped sending out the annual paper statements. Now it’s up to you to set up an online account and get your own statement. If you haven’t done so, do it today. And going forward, to help you remember to take a look annually, make it part of your birthday celebration.

Go to www.socialsecurity.gov. Look for the sign-in link for “my Social Security.” If you’re already receiving benefits, you can get benefit verification letters, change your address and phone number, and input or change direct-deposit information.

When I first set up my account, it took me less than 15 minutes to go through the verification process. The agency uses information from your credit file to verify your identity. Once you’ve set up an account, you can view your report anytime you want.

Once you get your statement, carefully review the information and heed this reminder you'll find on it: “It’s your earnings, not the amount of taxes you paid or the number of credits you’ve earned, that determine your benefit amount. When we figure that amount, we base it on your average earnings over your lifetime. If our records are wrong, you may not receive all the benefits to which you’re entitled.”

Your earnings data could be incorrect because your employer reported wrong information or used an incorrect name or Social Security number. Or perhaps you got married or divorced but didn’t report the change.

If your earnings information is incorrect, contact Social Security at 800-772-1213. You'll need to provide a W-2 form, a tax return or pay stub as proof of what you earned. 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.

On the statement, there’s also an important notice about Medicare. I’ve worked enough to qualify for Medicare at 65. And even if I don’t retire then, I’m reminded to contact Social Security three months before my 65th birthday to enroll in Medicare. If I don’t sign up for Medicare Part B (the part for doctor visits and outpatient services), there’s a late penalty. And it’s not cheap. You are assessed 10 percent for each year past 65 that you don’t sign up.

I like the slogans Social Security is using to promote its efforts: “Prepare for your Someday” and “Someday is here.”

If you’re young and starting out in your career, don’t put off retirement planning, thinking you have plenty of time. Ask the folks who have put it off. They'll tell you that they waited too long to make retirement planning a priority and are now worried they won’t have enough to retire when they want.

More than 13 million people have already created online accounts to get their Social Security statements. Make your someday today. Become informed.

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