Dear Savvy Senior,
What is the easiest way to apply for my Social Security retirement benefits, and how far in advance do I need to apply before I start collecting?
The Social Security Administration offers three different ways you can apply for your retirement and/or spouses benefits, depending on your preference and how much help you need. Here’s a rundown of the options, along with a list of information you’ll need to apply, and when to fill out the application.
How To Apply?
The easiest and most convenient way to apply for your Social Security benefits is to do it yourself online at SocialSecurity.gov. It takes less than 15 minutes to complete the application, as long as you’ve gathered all of the required information and documentation (more on that at the bottom of the column).
If, however, you’d rather have a Social Security employee assist with the process, you can also apply by phone at 800-772-1213, or at your local Social Security office. If you apply in person, be sure to call ahead and schedule an appointment to cut your office wait time.
Whichever method you feel most comfortable using, your application will be reviewed and processed as soon as all necessary documentation and information is received. And, the Social Security Administration will notify you if it turns out you could qualify for higher benefits on your spouse’s record, or if other family members can receive benefits on your work record.
When To Apply?
While full retirement age is currently 66 (for those born between 1943 and 1954) you can start receiving your Social Security retirement benefits as early as age 62 or as late as age 70, but the longer you wait the larger your monthly check. See ssa.gov/retire/estimator.html to estimate your benefits.
Social Security recommends that you apply for retirement benefits three months before you want your payments to start. So if you want your benefits to begin as soon as you turn 62, you should apply at 61 years and nine months old.
It’s also worth noting that if you start receiving your Social Security retirement benefits before age 65, you will automatically be enrolled in Medicare Part A and Part B, and you’ll receive your Medicare card about three months before your 65th birthday. It will include instructions to return it if you have work coverage that qualifies you for late enrollment.
But if you decide to delay your retirement benefits, you’ll need to sign up just for Medicare at age 65, which you can also do at SocialSecurity.gov, over the phone at 800-772-1213 or through your local Social Security office.
If you do not sign up, in some circumstances your Medicare coverage may be delayed and cost more.
In order to apply for Social Security benefits, you’ll need to be able to document some information about your identity and work history. So before applying, have the following information handy:
- Your Social Security number.
- Your birth certificate (original or certified).
- Proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status if you were not born in the United States.
- A copy of your U.S. military service papers if you had military service before 1968.
- A copy of your W-2 forms and/or self-employment tax return for last year.
- Your bank information (including your account number and the bank routing number) you want your benefits direct deposited to.
For a complete checklist of information you’ll need to complete your application, see ssa.gov/hlp/isba/10/isba-checklist.pdf.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.