The formula for determining a Social Security benefit is much more complex than that for figuring a federal retirement benefit, and requires making calculations beyond the reach of the typical covered person.

Social Security no longer automatically mails annual benefits estimates to everyone, as it once did. But you can ask Social Security to produce an estimate for you by calling (800) 772-1213 or going to www.ssa.gov. Within four to six weeks, you will receive a statement of your earnings record and estimates of your Social Security benefits for early retirement, full retirement and retirement at age 70. It also includes an estimate of the disability benefits you could receive if you become severely disabled before you’re eligible for full retirement, as well as the amount of benefits payable to your spouse and other eligible family members due to your retirement, disability or death.

To produce the estimate, Social Security checks your records to see whether you have earned enough credits over the years to qualify. If you do, SSA then estimates the amount based on your average earnings over your lifetime. For years between now and when you draw benefits, it assumes you will continue to work and make about the same as the latest earnings shown on your record. If your earnings increase or decrease your benefits will change accordingly.

The dollar amounts for your potential benefits are stated in current dollars—that is, as the buying power in today’s money. Social Security does this by assuming that the benefit formula will be increased equal with inflation each year between now and when you begin drawing benefits.

There are several important points to note:

* First, if you haven’t earned enough credits to qualify for a Social Security benefit, the agency will not be able to provide an estimate of your benefits. However, if you continue working, SSA will give you a dollar estimate when you do qualify.

* Second, the statement is an excellent opportunity for you to check, potentially well in advance of retirement, that Social Security’s records on you match your own records. This will save you the hassle and aggravation of trying to sort out the records just as you are preparing to apply for the benefits.

* Third, the estimate will not include the potential effect of the Government Pension Offset, Windfall Elimination Provision or Earnings Test on your benefits. See those sections for details on how they may affect you.

* Finally, remember that the estimate is only that—an estimate. When you apply for benefits, your exact benefits will differ because by then you’ll have an actual final record of earnings and not just a projected one.

The monthly benefit you receive from Social Security may not be the basic benefit for several reasons. Your actual benefit may be higher or lower than that amount if you begin to draw benefits at other than your full retirement age, which currently is 66.