Dear Savvy Senior,
When my 62-year-old brother applied for his retirement benefits early this year, he found that Social Security had made several mistakes on his earnings record in past years. The result was his monthly benefit check was much lower than it should have been. It took him months to straighten it out. How can I prevent this from happening to me?
The best way to keep an eye on your personal Social Security records is to carefully review your yearly Social Security statement, and don’t be surprised if you uncover an error. Government watch groups estimate that the Social Security Administration (SSA) makes mistakes on at least 3 percent of the total official earnings records it keeps. Here’s what you should know.
Earnings Errors – Social Security benefits are based on your 35 highest-earning years as reported to the government by your employers. If an employer has given the government incorrect salary data or if the government has erred in recording the information, you want to get it corrected as quickly as possible. Otherwise you may not get the full amount you’re entitled to when you retire. So, when you receive your annual Social Security statement, take the time to compare the earnings listed in the statement with income listed on W-2 forms in your tax records. And if you spot a discrepancy, follow these steps:
Call your nearest Social Security office (see www.ssa.gov/locator or call 800-772-1213 to get the number) to report the error. Some corrections can be made over the phone. However you may need to schedule an appointment and go in with copies of your W-2 forms or tax returns to prove the mistake, or you can mail it in.
If you suspect a discrepancy but don’t have backup records, the SSA may be able to use your employment information to search its records and correct mistakes. If the SSA can’t locate your records, you’ll need to contact the employer to obtain a copy of your W-2 for the year in question. Once your earnings record is corrected, SSA will send you a confirming letter. If you don’t receive the confirmation within three months, contact SSA again. And double-check the correction by making sure it appears on next year’s statement. If corrections aren’t made on the next statement you receive, start an appeals process (see www.ssa.gov/pubs/10041.html).
Note: SSA statements are mailed annually (about three months before your birthday) to everyone age 25 and over who is not already receiving Social Security benefits. If you’re not receiving yours, see www.ssa.gov/mystatement.
Other Mistakes – Earnings miscalculations can also happen if the SSA didn’t have your correct mailing address. If you don’t receive your annual statement, that’s a tip-off. If there is a mistake, contact the IRS (SSA depends on the IRS for addresses) at 800-829-3676 and ask them to mail you the “Change of Address” form 8822, or print it off at www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/f8822.pdf, fill it out and mail it back to the address on the form.
Two other factors that can cause mistakes are if you changed your name following a marriage or divorce, or if your date of birth in SSA records isn’t the same as it appears in IRS files. Double check your SSA statement for these possible mishaps and make sure your earnings data matches the amounts on your W-2 forms. And whenever you change your name, or if you notice a birth date error call the SSA (800-772-1213) and ask for Form SS-5, “Application for a Social Security Card,” and submit it with the correct information. The form can also be downloaded at www.ssa.gov/online/ss-5.html.
Calculation Errors – Even when all the earnings data is correct, the SSA occasionally errs in calculating benefits. You can double check their calculations by using SSA’s formula found at www.socialsecurity.gov, however the math is rather complex. If you think your benefits have been miscalculated, point it out to your local SSA office and ask them to recalculate. If they do find an error, make sure you receive a confirming letter and that the correction appears on next year’s statement. If you’re already receiving benefits, the SSA will reimburse you for the amount of the error.
Dear Savvy Senior,
Can you alert your readers to the national digital television transition that’s coming in early 2009? I work with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and we need journalists like you to write articles to inform the public (especially seniors) about what they may need to do to keep their television sets working.
There’s no doubt that most Americans are still in the dark when it comes to the looming digital television switch-over, and lower income seniors may be particularly vulnerable. Here’s what viewers need to know about the national digital TV conversion, who it will affect and what they can do.
TV Changes – If you still use an antenna to watch your favorite news and television programs, in just 15 months (at midnight on Feb. 17, 2009), your picture will disappear forever unless you make a change.
Why? The government is requiring all broadcasters to convert their signals from old-style analog (which have been used for 60 years) to new-style digital. The key reason for the conversion is to make better use of the public airwaves. Digital broadcast signals are superior to the analog system and take up less spectrum, so once broadcasters make the transition it will free up a big chunk of the airwaves and allow the government to auction it off and dedicate some of it to public safety. In other words, it’s technology moving forward.
Who’s Affected – If your television set is hooked up to a cable or satellite service, or if you have a new TV with a built-in digital tuner (check your manual), don’t sweat it. You don’t have to do anything. But if you have an older television that works with the help of a rooftop antenna or “rabbit ears,” you’ll have to make a change if you want to keep watching TV after Feb. 17, 2009. Your options are either to:
Buy a DTV converter box for your existing television. They are expected to cost between $50 and $70. To help offset the costs, the government is offering all households (regardless of income) up to two coupons, worth $40 each, to be used toward the purchase of up to two coupon-eligible converter boxes. Coupons cannot be combined to purchase a single converter. The coupon program is available on a first-come, first-served basis starting Jan. 1, 2008, through March 31, 2009. Seniors living in nursing homes or assisted living facilities won’t be able to redeem coupons because they do not live in their own households. To learn more call 888-388-2009 or visit www.ntia.doc.gov/dtvcoupon.
Buy a DTV converter box with enhanced features, such as one with a DVD recorder (see dtvfacts.com). They start at around $150, but are not eligible for the $40 coupon program. Subscribe to your cable or a satellite provider. Buy a new television set with a digital tuner. Most TV’s sold in stores today have built-in digital tuners, but it’s wise to double-check with the retailer just to be sure.
Savvy Notes: According to the National Association of Broadcasters, nearly 20 percent, or more than 20 million U.S. homes, rely strictly on antennas to receive free over-the-air broadcasts, and another 14.7 million have at least one antenna-powered TV. Starting next month television stations will start running public service announcements on the digital transition, how it may affect you, and what you may need to do to continuing watching television. You can also find lots information and answers to your specific questions at www.dtv.gov.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit www.savvysenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” books.