On Retirement

A timely reminder: Sign up for online Social Security account

Make sure to also check benefits statement annually

Sep 16, 2013 @ 2:04 pm

By Mary Beth Franklin

I was pleased to receive an automatic e-mail alert from the Social Security Administration Monday urging me to review my Social Security statement online.

Just like in the old days of paper statements when an annual benefits estimate would arrive in the mail three months before an individual's birthday, now SSA sends an e-mail to prompt people to review and verify the information.

I thought I would take the opportunity to remind advisers that they and their clients must set up a personalized account at socialsecurity.gov/myaccount to access these critical benefit estimates.

As everyone should know by now, SSA no longer mails annual benefits estimate statements to workers. As a result, the government saves about $70 million per year in printing and mailing costs.

The only way to access the information, which includes estimated retirement, disability and survivor benefit at various ages, as well as annual earnings statements, is to set up an on line account.

I set up my online account in January. It was easy to do.

I had to supply my Social Security number, date of birth, mailing address and a valid e-mail address. Anyone 18 or older can set up an online account.

In an effort to thwart identity theft, individuals must also be able to answer questions that only they are likely to know that matches information on file with SSA and in their credit report.

For example, when I went through the account set-up process, I was asked questions related to former employers and my previous residences. These are known as "out-of-the-wallet" questions.

The idea is to protect people by asking questions that only they — not some fraudster who stole a wallet — could answer.

Unfortunately, not everyone's online experience may go as smoothly as mine. Those who can't answer the security question can request that a paper statement be mailed to them, or they can visit their local Social Security office and present a government-issue ID in order to create an account and gain access to the online version of the statement.

Once an online Social Security account is set up, the information is protected with a unique user name and password.

Individuals can save and print the documents, something that advisers should encourage clients to do before their next financial review. Many of them may not realize that their statements no long will arrive in the mail.

Alternatively, once they set up an online account with SSA, advisers can retrieve the information together with them in the office. As a dry run, advisers might want to set up their own accounts first.

SSA is serious about protecting people's identities. I just found that out the hard way.

When I tried to go online Monday to review my statement, I had trouble remembering my user name and password. I blame it on jet lag following my recent visit to Orange County, Calif., to speak to two great women's financial literacy groups — WISE and WomanSage — about Social Security-claiming strategies.

After three failed attempts, I was locked out of my account and was told to try again Tuesday. Of course, immediately afterward, I located my Social Security statement where I had recorded the appropriate information.

Lesson learned.

Just like on the old paper statements, workers can expect to find their estimated Social Security benefits available at 62, full retirement age and 70; the annual earnings record; and how much they have paid in Social Security and Medicare taxes during their careers.

For those who are already receiving Social Security benefits or who are enrolled in Medicare, the online account allows them to check benefit and payment information, change their address, start or change their direct deposit information, or request a benefit verification letter that can be used as proof of income when applying for a loan or for state or local benefits.

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