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I'm preparing for retirement and I created an account with the Social Security office. I checked my earnings record, and for four years in the late 80's, they show me earning $0. I was a graduate student then and on stipend ($10K-ish per year) and most certainly had FICA (and fed and state taxes) withheld.

SSA says to contact them if there are any errors. If I do that, I'll have to prove that FICA was withheld during those years. I know I have my old tax returns going back to the 70's somewhere, but I sure can't find them. The question is: How else can I prove this?

I know I can request transcripts of old returns (online or by mail) but I don't know that those returns would have copies of the old W-2's showing the FICA withholding. If the SSA has the info wrong, I can't really go to them for the info.

Advice here is really appreciated, since those years are counting in the 35 years. I was a student for 12 years, and some years my income was $200. It'd be nice to replace those years with some $10K years.

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  • Have you considered contacting the school and asking for copies of your W2s? The tax transcripts won't have them.
    – littleadv
    Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 17:19
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    Are you sure it matters in figuring your benefit?
    – jwh20
    Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 18:01
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    Actually, FICA isn’t paid on graduate student stipends for work performed during academic semesters. Check your old W2 forms. Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 18:47

2 Answers 2

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It is entirely possible that you had no FICA taxes withheld while you were a graduate student on stipend. There is a Student Exception to the FICA tax that may have applied to you.

Your 1040 tax return from those years would not show whether or not you paid FICA, as that tax does not appear on the 1040. However, if you have W-2 or paystubs from those years, you would see whether or not you were charged for FICA.

A Wage and Income Transcript would show you your W-2 information, but these are apparently only available for the last 10 years. If you can’t find your W-2 forms from those years, the only other thing I can think of would be to contact your old school and ask them if they have a copy of your W-2 forms or if they have any records of tax withheld.

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Social Security benefits are based on your "lifetime" earnings. However, your actual earnings are adjusted or “indexed” to account for changes in average wages since the year the earnings were received. Then Social Security calculates your average indexed monthly earnings during the 35 years in which you earned the most. So any minimal earned income like $200 will not even really count if it doesn't fit into the 35 years of the "most" money earned. Those low income years will likely disappear in that shuffle. Even if you had 10K years, if these were the only low pay years outside of the 35 better paid years, they will disappear in the calculation. If you haven't worked with a decent income for 35 years, then it would be concerning to have low income years. If they were low income, they were low income, welcome to the reality of the fake social insecurity system that isn't really a retirement plan.

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    Welcome to the site. The purpose of this site is to have a place for specific questions and have them answered. You can edit your answer to explain that this may not be worth the trouble, but as it is now it looks more like a rant against the social security system than anything helpful to the original poster.
    – littleadv
    Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 19:16
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    It's the dilemma of academics. We get our first real job at age 30, and if we retire at 65, we just barely get 35 years in. I took some sabbaticals in foreign countries, so I have 4 or 5 years interspersed with $0 income in the Unites States. So I think that means some of the zeroes are averaged in. I want to reduce the number of zeroes.
    – B. Goddard
    Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 19:21

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