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Social Security Mailbox

Can I Buy a Higher Benefit?

This and 3 other unusual questions answered 

Q: I've heard that my ex-husband has died. I've asked Social Security if his death will increase my Social Security benefit. But I am told I must furnish his death certificate before my question can be answered. What can I do to get his death certificate?

A: Social Security can sometimes make some awkward demands on us concerning paperwork. Someone in your position probably wouldn't want to approach the former spouse's family for a copy of the death certificate.

But state governments have offices of "vital records" or "vital statistics" that can provide various personal documents, including death certificates. An online search for your ex-husband's state's name and "vital records" should turn it up. But beware: Fees and rules on who can and can't get a death certificate vary by state. Good luck on your search.

See also: Divorce and Social Security benefits

Q. In the past, I received statements from Social Security giving my income for each year. However, I noticed that a few years of my earnings were missing. How do I go about getting Social Security to include those earnings in my work record so they can be increase my retirement benefits?

A. There are two things you should know. First, there's a regular process for correcting errors on your earnings record. Second, there's a time limit for correcting errors, but that rule has a number of exceptions which may work to your advantage.

Start by calling Social Security at 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778) between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday-Friday. Or contact a Social Security office. People there will work with you. To show that earnings are missing, you'll want to provide several documents, such as W-2s, pay stubs or tax returns. But even if you don't have these, Social Security may be able to run down missing amounts using its own records or your employer's.

As for the time limits, the rule book says that you have three years, three months and 15 days after the close of the tax year in which you earned the money to correct any errors. But there are exceptions to this deadline if an omission was caused by Social Security's own failure to update your records properly. If the deadline has passed for you, ask Social Security if you qualify for an exception.

Stan Hinden, a former columnist for the Washington Post, wrote How to Retire Happy: The 12 Most Important Decisions You Must Make Before You Retire. Have a question? Check out the Social Security Mailbox archive. If you don't find your answer there, send an email to the Social Security Mailbox.

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