Applying for Social Security benefits is a rite of passage that requires a bit of planning and paperwork. There are two main factors to consider:
- When you want to start getting your checks in the mail
- When and how to apply
Let’s start with number one: deciding on when you want to start getting your checks in the mail.
You are eligible to begin receiving your Social Security benefits at the age of 62, and you can submit your application up to three months before that birthday. This means that if you are not at least 61 years and nine months old, you cannot yet apply for benefits. If you have reached or surpassed that age, then when to apply depends on when you want your benefits to start.
When to start your Social Security benefits is one of the most significant retirement decisions you will make. You can read more about how to make this decision here, but the key point to keep in mind is that the amount you’ll receive each month depends on when you start dipping into those benefits. In sum:
- You can start your Social Security benefits between the ages of 62 and 70
- The earlier you begin taking your benefits, the less you will receive every month
- If you start taking benefits at 62, your benefit amount will be reduced by 25-30%, depending on when you were born. Conversely, the longer you wait, the larger the payments will be. Waiting until you are 70 will yield the maximum monthly amount
There is no “right” time to begin accepting benefits. The decision depends on how much you have saved for retirement, other sources of income, your cost of living, your health (and related expenses), and your anticipated life span, among other factors. Once you have decided on the best time for you, the next step is to apply.
You can apply for your benefits up to four months before you want them to start. The Social Security Administration will not process your application if you file for benefits more than four months in advance.
How To Apply
If you want your benefits to start in four months or less and you meet the minimum age requirement, then you may begin the application process. Ready? OK, here we go!
Step 1, Gather the following documents:
- Your Social Security card or a record of your number
- Your original birth certificate or other proof of birth
- Proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status if you were not born in the U.S.
- A copy of your military service papers if you served in the military before 1968
- A copy of your W-2 forms and/or self-employment tax returns for the last year
If you’re missing a few documents, don’t panic. You can still apply with the documents you do have and provide the missing ones later. Your local Social Security office can also help by contacting your state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics to verify your information.
Step 2, Fill out the application
You have four options at your disposal for applying. Here they are:
- Apply online at the Social Security Retirement/Medicare Benefit Application
- Apply by phone at 1-800-772-1213, or TTY 1-800-325-0778 if you are deaf or hard of hearing.
- Apply in-person by making an appointment at your local Social Security office.
- If you live outside of the U.S., then contact the nearest U.S. Social Security office, U.S. Embassy, or consulate.
Show Me The Money
Benefits are paid the month after they are due. For example, if your benefits start in August, you will receive your first benefit payment in September. Also keep in mind that Social Security benefits are only paid in months for which you qualify for the full month. If your birthday is August 8, you would not qualify in August.
Congratulations on making the transition to retirement!