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Dr. Charles Willis, a 77- year-old retired psychiatrist, did a smart thing when he asked the Social Security Administration to check if it had applied “wage credits,” earned during two tours in the Army, when it calculated his monthly benefit at age 65.

A clerk at the Social Security office in Fresno, Calif., told Willis he could be sure the agency had. Willis insisted that someone check. Six weeks later, he received a check for $28,534.

Then Willis did another smart thing. He waited for a confirmation letter before spending the money. It came days later, signed by an assistant regional commissioner for SSA. She said the check was to correct Willis’ benefit amount back through December 1990. And from June forward, his monthly benefit check would be raised about $100.

Only then did Willis spend the money. He paid off a few small loans, cleared his wife’s credit cards and then bought her a new car, paying cash.

Now, recall the old adage, “If it sounds too good to be true … .”

One day after Willis allowed an interview on his good fortune, so that other veterans might benefit, the psychiatrist left an excited voice mail message saying SSA officials “are crazy.” It’s hard to blame him.

That day he received a second letter from the same SSA official. There had been a processing error. Willis now owed Social Security $27,681. He could send a check or money order, or SSA would withhold his monthly benefit until it had recouped the money.

He has a good lawyer — his daughter — and promises that, in the end, it will be cheaper for the government to let him keep the money. Stay tuned.

The most important lesson for veterans in all of this is that Willis does get to keep $853, the difference between his windfall and the payback amount.

Wage credits are easy to understand if you know the logic behind them. For many years, people serving in the military didn’t participate in Social Security. When Congress decided it was unfair that those defending their country got a slow start accumulating Social Security credit, it changed the law to give the military wages credits, sort of pretend income, toward setting future Social Security benefits. The wage credit is $160 a month for active-duty service time from 1940 through 1956.

In 1957, military members became full participants in Social Security but they continued to accumulate some wage credits. That’s because so much of their income is nontaxable income allowances it still kept them behind civilian peers for future Social Security benefits. Wage credits for service from 1957 though 1977 are $300 per quarter, $1,200 a year.

More complex wage credit rules apply for years served after 1977 but the annual maximum remained at $1,200.

Congress ended wage credits in 2001 after deciding that servicemembers are better paid today and that existing wage credits were losing their importance and value.

— Comments and suggestions are welcomed. Write to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA 20120-1111 or send e-mail to milupdate@aol.com

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