Social Security benefits are a major source of income for millions of Americans — so much so that the average retiree depends on the program about 40% of their income, according to the Social Security Administration. The last thing these folks need is to be shortchanged on their benefits, but it does happen.
Like any large organization, the SSA doesn’t always get things right. Mistakes are most prevalent with Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and especially Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, according to AARP. Mistakes are less common with retirement benefits, although some retirees have been underpaid as well.
Here’s a look at three ways the government might be underpaying your Social Security benefits, according to a YouTube video by Dr. Ed Weir, a former manager with the SSA.
Your Benefits Were Never Correct to Begin With
It’s not uncommon for benefits to have been calculated incorrectly based on the information available — especially before the rise of the internet and digital records. Back then, people had to visit a Social Security office to file for retirement, disability, spousal or other benefits.
“We used to print off their work history,” Weir said. “We would put it down on the desk and say, ‘Hey take a look at this. Do you see any gaps?'”
This wasn’t the most efficient way of doing things. It only got worse after Social Security budget cuts forced the agency to stop sending out earnings statements every year, making it even more difficult to track your earnings record and expected benefits.
“If you got a missing year year or missing years, that will definitely affect your monthly benefit amount,” Weir said.
You Applied for the Wrong Program
The second reason your Social Security benefit might not be correct is that you applied for the wrong program. For example, if you are 62 you’re probably thinking about retirement benefits when you might be better served to delay claiming retirement benefits and apply for spousal or other benefits first.
“There are so many programs, maybe you just filed for the incorrect program when you first filed,” Weir said.
The SSA doesn’t usually won’t volunteer advice on the best way to maximize your benefits — unless you ask. That’s why it’s important to educate yourself on the benefits available and how to sort through the best options.
Your Situation Has Changed
In some cases, major life events can increase your monthly Social Security check even after you have started collecting retirement benefits. This might happen if you have a new child, lose a spouse, get married or get divorced. If you don’t capitalize on the new situation you could be getting underpaid.
“All of those changes just might affect your Social Security benefit, but Social Security doesn’t necessarily reach out to you when you adopt or have a child or get divorced,” Weir said.
For example, suppose you have already started collecting retirement benefits and later adopt a child. In this case, the child might also be eligible for benefits. To qualify, the child must be unmarried and fall under one of these categories, according to the SSA:
- Younger than age 18
- Between ages 18 and 19 and a full-time student at an elementary or secondary school (grade 12 or below)
- Age 18 or older with a disability that began before age 22
If you suspect you’ve been underpaid, Weir recommends either calling Social Security at 800-772-1213, visiting your local Social Security office or going to the Social Security website at SSA.gov.
The SSA will investigate the matter and compensate you for any underpayment in a lump sum or through increased monthly payments, according to AARP.
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