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As you approach your 60s, you’ll want to open one of the few remaining pieces of snail mail that actually matters: your Social Security statement.

The Social Security Administration sends these printed statements to pre-retirees every year. Never received it or misplaced it? Then use as a backup.

If you hire a financial planner, you’ll probably be asked to bring your latest Social Security statement to your next meeting. It plays a key role in retirement planning. But what exactly do advisers look for in these statements?

“It’s the first place we look as we assess your estimated Social Security benefits,” said Billy Voyles, a Minnesota-based adviser. He focuses clients’ attention on the variation in monthly retirement income depending on the age they start taking benefits — from 62 to 70.

Even though the statement labels these figures as estimates, pre-retirees may treat the projected benefits as set in stone. That’s a mistake.

“Some people see these numbers and think of them as [guaranteed] payouts,” Voyles said. “But it’s important to know they’re only estimates that assume you’ll continue to work” and generate steady earnings based on your recent annual income.

The statement provides a year-by-year earnings record that spans your entire working life. Scanning these figures, advisers gain a revealing snapshot to track your work history and plan your retirement income.

“If there’s a low spot, we want to understand it and ask about it,” said Andrew Crowell, a Los Angeles-based adviser. “We try to be sensitive. It can be ripping off a scab from a layoff or divorce. We want to find out if whatever happened could happen again — and if it can, we can then think creatively on what we could do to prepare.”

If a client’s income plummeted a decade ago due to sudden job loss, for instance, Crowell might explore how the individual could navigate another layoff. Adding to an emergency cash fund and cutting household spending can cushion the client from such a shock.

An individual’s career arc and line of work affects the trajectory of earnings.

An individual’s career arc and line of work affects the trajectory of earnings. Attorneys and physicians may see a surge in earnings in the decade after opening their practice. Sole proprietors can hit the jackpot in years when they land a big contract. “People in commission sales tend to have highly volatile income streams,” Crowell said.

In addition, Crowell probes to find out clients’ income expectations in the coming years. Will they scale down to part-time or slow their sales? Will they train newcomers or share commission with partners? If they run a business, what’s their exit strategy?

“Knowing what their retirement resources are is critical, so we need to look at volatility in income as retirement approaches,” Crowell said. “Can you create another income stream in retirement?”

The Social Security statement also serves as a springboard for advisers to discuss estate planning. The statement provides an overview of spousal benefits (“If you are married, divorced, or widowed, you may be eligible for higher benefits on your spouse’s record.”) as well as benefits available to family members such as former spouses or dependent children.

“I go through survivor benefits,” Voyles said. Outlining different scenarios, he helps clients understand the impact of Social Security if a spouse dies, the client dies or if both die.

If a spouse passes, the surviving spouse’s benefit is based on the earnings of the person who died. The more the deceased paid into Social Security, the higher the survivor’s benefits.

Review your earnings record for accuracy. If even one or two years of numbers are wrong, it can throw off what you’re entitled to receive.

The Social Security Administration urges individuals to review their earnings record for accuracy. Estimated benefits reflect average earnings up to 35 years of your working life. If even one or two years of numbers are wrong, it can throw off what you’re entitled to receive.

“Sometimes, their earnings record is wrong,” Voyles said. “The error can be the wrong Social Security number on a W-9 form from 20 years ago.”

Many people in their 60s don’t keep meticulous records of their annual income from their 20s, 30s and 40s. Nevertheless, Voyles urges pre-retirees to scan the Social Security statement and note any work year earnings that seem incorrect.

“I tell them if anything jumps out at you, do a little digging to find out why,” he said. “Start with pulling your federal tax return for that year. You can also call your local Social Security Administration office and ask them about [a potential error] on your earnings record.”

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