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Social Security is an important piece of your retirement planning, but it can be difficult to figure out on your own what to expect the program to pay you when the time comes. Fortunately, the Social Security Administration itself recognizes the need to plan for the future, and the Social Security benefits statement that it provides has a wealth of information that you can use to help you plan for retirement.

What your Social Security benefits statement says

The reason that the Social Security benefits statement is so important is that it gives you in an easy-to-digest summary a comprehensive list of the benefits you can expect from Social Security. For retirement benefits, the statement will tell you what your full retirement age is and how much you'll receive in monthly benefits. That calculation is based on your past income history and assumptions on what you'll earn in the future. It also shows you how much more you'll get if you wait until age 70 to claim benefits, and how much less your monthly checks will be if you claim at the earliest eligible age of 62.

The benefits statement doesn't just stop with retirement benefits. You'll also find out if you qualify for disability benefits based on your current work history, and if so, how much you'll be entitled to receive if you became disabled right now.

Finally, your benefits statement is also useful for your family in planning for their finances. It gives detailed information about survivor benefits that might be available after your death, giving benefit estimates for your spouse and children and also setting out the family maximum benefit amount.

Sample benefits statement. Image source: SSA.

Limitations of the Social Security benefits statement

As useful as it is, the Social Security benefits statement isn't perfect. It can't predict what your future earnings will be, so it has to make assumptions about the rest of your career in order to come up with reasonable estimates. The statement sets out those assumptions, typically estimating your future earnings as being consistent with whatever you most recently earned in a recent year.

In addition, the statement relies on the record of earnings history that the Social Security Administration has. Those numbers typically match up with what your employer reports on your W-2 tax form every year, so they're usually correct. However, you should look at your statement to make sure that the information is accurate. Otherwise, your benefits might be calculated incorrectly.

How to get your Social Security benefits statement

In the past, the Social Security Administration sent out a benefits statement every year in a letter, containing the most up-to-date information available about your Social Security benefits. Now, though, you can get your benefits statement online through the mySocialSecurity website. Understanding that not everyone has computer access, the SSA does still send paper copies of the Social Security benefits statement, but only once every five years.

When you look at your statement, you'll also find some summary information about how your benefits are calculated, what rights your family members have to benefits, and other details about Social Security. You'll find a list of publications that will provide further information. In order to get those publications, you can either look online on the SSA website, or you can call the toll-free number at 1-800-772-1213 and request that paper copies be sent to you.

Social Security isn't meant to replace all of your pre-retirement income, but it does play a vital role in giving you a supplement to your own savings that together can help you live your retired years in comfort. By checking up on your Social Security benefits statement and making sure that the data that the SSA has about you is accurate, you'll be in a much better position to plan for your retirement using realistic information that will closely match what Social Security eventually pays you.