No matter how far away you are from retirement, it's important to understand your Social Security benefits – and there's a particularly good reason to do it now.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) is bringing back annual paper benefits statements for the first time in three years. It stopped in 2011 to save money on printing and postage, but Congress and consumer advocates complained that workers needed better access to their data. In September, the agency reversed its decision and announced it's resuming the practice of mailing paper statements to workers in two categories:
Those who are not receiving benefits and are within three months of turning 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55, and 60. (After age 60, workers will receive a statement every year.)
Those who still haven't registered for a My Social Security ( www.ssa.gov/myaccount/) online account.
Why is this important? First, if you've paid into the Social Security and Medicare system, you should understand the benefits you've earned. Second, as the SSA has been closing field offices and reducing services to the public, despite the fact that Baby Boomers are starting to flood the system. It's a good time to confirm and correct benefits due to the longer wait times on the agency's toll free telephone line and field offices.
Start by waiting for your next paper benefits statement or sign up at My Social Security Web site to review your current data. Here's a quick overview of what your statement tells you:
• Introduction and your estimated benefits. This section covers four categories. The first is your retirement benefits, which are based on your age when you start drawing them. The calculations are based on three critical ages as examples: 62 (the earliest age you can draw retirement benefits), 67 (the full retirement age for anyone born after 1960) and age 70 (the oldest anyone can start drawing benefits, generally at the highest level if you can wait). The second is disability, which refers to the amount of your monthly disability benefit if you qualify. Third, your family/survivors benefits if a loved one dies. And lastly, your Medicare eligibility and the particular facts to support that conclusion.
• Your Earnings Record. This is a summary of your earnings that you need to verify for accuracy. Pull your annual tax returns as far back as you can to confirm this information, and if you work with a tax or financial planning professional, double-check their conclusions if you plan to challenge any errors with the SSA.
• Some Facts About Social Security. Provides additional definitions and guidelines to better understand your statement and includes key contact information.
Most experts will tell you that when it comes to retirement, time is your biggest ally – it gives you the opportunity to invest, save and adjust your plan strategy. Use your statement to do the following:
• Spot and correct errors. If you and your tax professional spot disparities in your benefit statement make careful notes, gather your evidence and consult the SSA's contact page ( www.ssa.gov/agency/contact/) to start the correction process remotely or in person.
• Blend Social Security into a broader retirement plan. Most experts agree Social Security alone won't provide a comfortable retirement. It's never too late to plan.
• Bottom Line: Even if you're years away from retirement, make sure you understand your Social Security benefits, and that they're accurate and fit into a broader financial plan for your retirement.
JASON ALDERMAN directs Visa’s financial education programs. Sign up for his free monthly e-Newsletter at www.practicalmoneyskills.com /newsletter.