You can't claim Social Security until you're 62, but all through your working years, the government tracks the money you've paid Social Security taxes on so it knows how much to pay you in benefits later. While it usually does a good job of this, mistakes do happen.
If the government records your income incorrectly for a given year, that could permanently shrink your Social Security benefit. Fortunately, there's a way to avoid this. All you need is a computer, your Social Security number, and five minutes of your time.
How could the government get my income wrong?
Every year, the IRS forwards information about how much money you paid in Social Security taxes over to the Social Security Administration (SSA). The SSA puts this figure into your earnings record, which tracks your earnings history over the years.
When you finally sign up to collect Social Security, the SSA looks at your 35 highest-earning years in your earnings record, adjusted for inflation, and uses them to calculate your Social Security benefit. In short, the more money you've paid Social Security taxes on over the years, the larger your benefit checks will be.
Usually, the SSA's information is pretty accurate, but there are times when things can get messed up. For example, if you write your Social Security number incorrectly on your employment paperwork, the government might erroneously apply this income to another person's earnings record instead of yours. Legally changing your name without notifying your employer can also lead to confusion because the government might assume the different names refer to different people.
Fortunately, you can view your earnings record for free online to make sure the information listed there is accurate. Doing this annually can give you confidence that your future Social Security benefit will be calculated based on accurate information.
How do I check my earnings record?
You can check your earnings record by creating a my Social Security account. In order to make one, you must be at least 18 years old and have a valid Social Security number, U.S. mailing address, and email address.
When you first sign up, you'll have to provide your full name and Social Security number. You'll also have to answer some identity verification questions, such as which street you've lived on in the past or which company you have your mortgage through. This ensures no one but you can gain access to your private information. Once you've done this, you can create a username and password, which you can use to access your account in the future.
Once in the account, navigate to the earnings record and review the income listed there. Make sure it matches your tax records for the year.
One thing of note for high earners: The amount you've earned in a year doesn't always match the amount you've paid Social Security taxes on. For example, in 2022, you only pay taxes on the first $147,000 you make this year. If you earn more than this, your earnings record is going to show $147,000 for 2022, and that's not an error.
The limit on income subject to Social Security taxes was lower in past years. So if you see something that looks odd, it's always a good idea to verify what the maximum was for that year before ruling it an error. This shouldn't be a problem most workers run into, though.
The biggest thing to watch for is no income recorded for a year in which you know you worked. Something like this can really hurt your future Social Security benefit, so it's important to correct this as soon as possible.
What do I do if I find an error?
If you notice an error in your earnings record, fill out a Request for Correction of Earnings Record form and submit it to the SSA, along with any documentation you have showing your real income for the year. Copies of tax returns or W-2s are great if you have them available. In fact, it's usually smart to hold onto your tax documentation for the year until you've verified the accuracy of your earnings record.
You can also make an appointment with your local Social Security office to discuss the matter. Bring your documents with you if you decide to do this.
If you don't have documentation showing your real income, an SSA representative may still be able to obtain the information by reaching out to your employer and asking for their records. It might take a little time to sort out, but the effort you put in will be well worth it in the long run.