Mistaken Social Security payments are rare, but with the Social Security Administration (SSA) delivering monthly benefits to nearly 70 million people, they do happen.
In the 2019 fiscal year, Social Security paid out just over $1 trillion in retirement, survivors and disability benefits. That included about $2.6 billion in improper payments, in which beneficiaries received more or less than they were due.
The rates of overpayment and underpayment were 0.2 percent and 0.05 percent, respectively.
If you find yourself in that small minority, tell Social Security 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.
Incorrect payments happen for a number of reasons:
- 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, 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 Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the benefits that serve people with disabilities. These programs are subject to strict limits on work activity, and in the case of SSI, financial resources. Unreported or unidentified income and assets are leading causes of payment errors, according to Social Security.
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, SSA withholds some or all of your corrected monthly payment until the debt is settled. If you no longer are receiving benefits, the agency seeks a lump sum refund, which you can repay online using the Treasury Department's Pay.gov service. You'll find information on using Pay.gov on your billing notice.
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.
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 and that repayment would cause financial hardship.
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.
If you've been underpaid
If you get a benefit payment you believe was too little, call SSA at 800-772-1213 or visit a Social Security office. SSA will investigate the matter and compensate you for any underpayment in a lump sum or through increased monthly payments.
[Editor’s note: Local Social Security offices are currently closed to walk-in visits due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many Social Security services are available online and by phone. If you have a "dire need situation" regarding your benefits or need to update information attached to your Social Security number, such as your name or citizenship status, you may be able to schedule an in-person appointment. See Social Security's coronavirus page or call your local office for more information.]
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.
Updated March 9, 2021