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What if my Social Security benefit is the wrong amount?

Mistaken Social Security payments are rare, but with the Social Security Administration (SSA) delivering monthly benefits to nearly 71.9 million people, they do happen.

The SSA pays out more than $1 trillion a year in retirement benefits, survivor benefits and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). In the 2022 federal fiscal year, that included an estimated $13.6 billion in “improper payments,” according to a November 2023 report from the SSA’s Office of the Inspector General: $11.1 billion in overpayments and $2.5 billion in underpayments.

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If you believe you were either overpaid or underpaid by Social Security, tell the SSA as soon as possible. Failing to report the error in a timely way can lead to months of incorrect payments along with the eventual hassle of sorting it out.

Why Social Security payment errors happen

Incorrect payments occur for a variety of reasons:

  • The SSA might be at fault — a computational error, or a failure to obtain or act on information relevant to a recipient's eligibility or benefit amount.
  • A beneficiary might have neglected to notify Social Security of, or provided incorrect data about, a life event that can affect benefits, such as a change in income or a death in the family.
  • Your case might not be finished. If a beneficiary appeals a loss or reduction of benefits, the SSA is required in some instances to keep paying the amount in question until the case is decided. If the appeal fails, then the beneficiary was getting the “wrong” amount during this time.

Mistakes are most prevalent in SSDI and, especially, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the other SSA-administered benefit that serves people with disabilities.

Eligibility for these programs is subject to strict limits on work activity and, in the case of SSI, ceilings on income and financial resources. Unreported or unidentified income and assets are leading causes of payment errors, according to Social Security.

In the 2023 fiscal year, SSI recipients were overpaid by an estimated $4.6 billion, accounting for 8 percent of total payments under the program, according to an SSA report to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.

What to do if you've been overpaid

If Social Security paid you too much, you generally have to pay the money back. You will receive a notice explaining the error and outlining your options and rights.

Typically, the SSA withholds some of your corrected monthly benefit to put toward repayment. The agency used to cut off benefits entirely in some cases, but as of March 25, 2024, these “clawbacks” are capped at 10 percent, one of several changes the SSA announced that month to ease the financial burden on beneficiaries facing overpayment bills.

If you no longer are receiving benefits, the agency seeks a lump sum refund, which you can repay online using the Treasury Department's service. You'll find information on using on your billing notice.

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The SSA has the authority to garnish wages or income tax refunds if you don't comply. But it also can work with you to set up a monthly payment plan you can afford. In most cases the repayment period can be up to five years.

You can request an outright waiver of the debt by filing Form SSA-632. You'll have to demonstrate that the overpayment was not your fault or that you cannot afford to repay it.

If you don't think you were overpaid, you can appeal using Form SSA-561-U2. You have 60 days from the date you receive the overpayment notice to file your appeal.

You'll find more information in the Social Security publication Overpayments.

What to do if you've been underpaid

If you get a benefit payment you believe was too little, call the SSA at 800-772-1213 or visit a Social Security office. Social Security will investigate the matter and compensate you for any underpayment in a lump sum or through increased monthly payments. For office visits, Social Security recommends calling in advance and scheduling an appointment to avoid long waits.

The chief cause of underpayments is computational or clerical errors, often arising from inaccurate information in a beneficiary's earnings history. That's the year-by-year listing in Social Security's records of how much you made over your career and the foundation for computing your benefit.

You can check your earnings record online at any time if you have a My Social Security account. If you spot discrepancies or omissions, report them to Social Security to seek a correction.

You'll want to assemble proof of earnings such as W-2 forms, tax returns and pay stubs. For more details, see the SSA publication How to Correct Your Social Security Earnings Record.

Keep in mind

The time limit for correcting an entry in your earnings record is three years, three months and 15 days after the tax year in question. After that, Social Security will not make revisions except in a handful of circumstances, among them inaccuracies resulting from fraud, mechanical or clerical errors; wages omitted from an employer's tax filings; and earnings credited to the wrong person or time period.

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