It’s not uncommon for seniors to receive less Social Security than expected. In fact, Nationwide Retirement Institute research shows that one-quarter of recent retirees aren’t collecting much as they thought they would. In most cases, these discrepancies are due to a poor understanding of collection ages, spousal benefits and other strategic considerations.

Occasionally, though, the Social Security Administration (SSA) does make a mistake. The SSA claims 99.9 percent payment accuracy, but if even 1 in 1,000 retirees’ benefits are miscalculated, you’ll probably have to help a client correct an error eventually. Even a small miscalculation in the primary insurance amount may derail their plans – especially if it’s magnified by early or delayed collection – so it’s important to help them set things straight as soon as possible.

Checking earnings histories

“The first place where most people make mistakes is where their earnings histories are incorrect,” says Joseph Roseman, managing partner at O’Dell, Winkfield, Roseman & Shipp. Social Security benefits are based on recipients’ top-earning 35 years, and discrepancies between the administration’s records and clients’ earnings can lead to an error.

In most cases, however, those errors aren’t the SSA’s fault. In “How to Correct Your Social Security Earnings Record,” the Administration outlines common reasons for missing earnings. These include name changes due to marriage and divorce, incorrect W-2s and employers’ clerical errors.

Fortunately, the SSA also makes it easy to check your earnings history.

“After the 2008 debacle, they quit mailing them and encouraged everyone to sign up online,” says Roseman. “Every year, starting when you start work, you really should check your earnings history.”

All clients have to do is visit the “My Account” section of SSA.gov and provide identification to receive a username and password. In addition to checking up on earnings, these accounts can be used to estimate benefits, apply for benefits and Medicare and request a replacement Social Security card.

Correcting a mistake

If there is a discrepancy, taxpayers have three years, three months and 15 days from the time the money was earned to correct it.

“I’ve actually seen folks get mistakes fixed after far longer, as long as they can verify it wasn’t their fault,” adds Roseman. Depending on the circumstance and timeline, mistakes on the part of an employer or tax preparer could be corrected several years after the fact.

Still, it is the client’s obligation to prove their reported earnings. The SSA typically requires a W-2, tax return or pay stub, although personal records may suffice. If a client hasn’t kept those, the SSA also advises beneficiaries to report their workplaces, employers, dates worked and earnings, although there’s no guarantee the error will be fixed.

As for the procedure, “This is a case where you’ll actually need to visit the local office, and you’ll have to hand them paper documentation to keep,” says Roseman. “Usually what I’ve found is that you’ll get an appointment to state your case within a couple weeks, and corrections will take 30 to 90 days.”

To make that initial appointment, clients can call the SSA at 1-800-772-1213.

How to handle overpayment

Overpayment is also rare, but beneficiaries who receive more than what they’re entitled to will have to pay back the difference.  If the SSA finds an overpayment, they’ll mail a notice; the client can appeal it within 60 days with Form SSA-561.

However, beneficiaries who appeal within 10 days can keep their current benefits rolling, at least until the appeal is processed.

“It’s probably best to pick up the phone and schedule an appointment,” says Roseman. “In this case, you’re always better off to go sit down in front of the local rep.”

In cases of true overpayment, clients have two options: The SSA will ask for a full payback within 30 days, but if that’s not feasible, they can take 10 percent from each subsequent check until the difference is paid.

Educating clients

Ultimately, preventing mistakes – not reacting to them – is the best way for clients to preserve their benefits and accurately plan for retirement.

“I rarely see a situation where someone was supposed to receive a larger benefit and it ended up being smaller,” says Roseman. “It’s usually because of some mistake or misunderstanding the client actually made.”

To that end, one of the most important things for clients to understand is that if they collect prior to full retirement age while working, they may need to pay some of their benefits back.

“The rule says for every $2 over the $16,920 limit you make, you have to pay back a dollar,” says Roseman.

The total sum owed is taken in full from the next year’s checks, which can cause some working beneficiaries to receive nothing for a few months at a time.

Additionally, clients should understand how life changes may affect their future checks. Divorce, death – even an out-of-state move may affect the benefits to which they’re entitled and the taxes withheld.

In the event a client does need the SSA to correct a mistake, be nice to whomever you’re speaking to Roseman advises.

“I can’t tell you have many times that’s helped me get something done, and usually, the person you’re talking to on the phone isn’t the one who made the mistake.”