How to apply for Social Security

Gather the documents you need and research benefits before starting your Social Security application.

  • By Rachel Hartman,
  • U.S. News & World Report
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As you approach retirement and consider applying for Social Security benefits, there are several steps you will need to take. The preparations for your Social Security application include gathering the right documents, filling out the paperwork, thinking about the timing of the application and considering the online process.

When to collect Social Security

Here's what to consider when determining the right time to start collecting Social Security.

Follow these guidelines to save time and make the most of the Social Security benefits available to you.

Documents needed to apply for Social Security

  • Social Security card.
  • Birth certificate.
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship.
  • A copy of your military service papers (if you carried out military service before 1968).
  • A copy of W-2 forms or self-employment tax return from the previous year.
  • Any marriage, divorce and death certificates. Bank information to set up deposits.
  • A spouse’s Social Security number and date of birth (if applying for spousal benefits).

How to apply for Social Security

You can fill out an application for Social Security benefits at your local Social Security office. You can also call to file for benefits or fill out an application online. Be prepared to share the documents you have gathered and to review your Social Security statement. This record shows an account of your annual earnings, and you’ll want to make sure it is accurate, because the amount you’ll receive in benefits will be based on this history.

The Social Security Administration applies a formula to determine the amount you’ll receive. This calculation looks at your 35 highest earning years and averages the amount earned during that time. It also adjusts the amount to account for changes in average wages that have taken place since the income was earned.

You can expect to receive Social Security benefits based on your earnings history. “Even if you didn’t work, you may qualify for benefits under someone else’s work history,” says Leibel Sternbach, a National Social Security Advisor and founder of Yields4u.com in Melville, New York. You might eligible for benefits through your spouse or ex-spouse.

Consider the timing of your application

The timing of your application can impact the amount you will receive in benefits. “The ins and outs of when to apply and what is best for your situation can be complex,” says Jay Ferrans, president of JM Financial & Accounting Services in Southfield, Michigan. If you wait until your full retirement age to collect payments, which is an age set by the Social Security Administration based on your date of birth, you’ll receive the full amount of your benefits. Filing for benefits prior to this age could lead to a decrease in the monthly payment amount. For instance, if your full retirement age is 67 and you start retirement benefits when you turn 62, the monthly payment might be reduced by about 30%. If you wait and opt to receive benefits later, the amount will grow each year until age 70. For example, if you have a full retirement age of 66 and you wait until age 70 to start collecting payments, the amount will be 132% of the benefit you were eligible for at age 66.

Keep in mind when you begin the process that Social Security payments will not start immediately. “You should generally file for benefits at least two months before you want to start receiving payments,” says Andy Panko, a certified financial planner and owner of Tenon Financial in Iselin, New Jersey. Benefits are designed to be paid for the previous month. If you apply in January, your benefit might begin in February and would be paid out in March.

Your Social Security payments may be subject to taxes. “Up to 85% of Social Security benefits can be taxed, which can have a serious impact on the amount of benefits one actually gets to enjoy,” Sternbach says. Talk to an advisor or tax planner before applying for Social Security to see how much you can expect to pay in taxes after benefits begin.

How to apply for Social Security online

You will need to set up an online Social Security account if you don't already have one. A my Social Security account allows you to track your lifetime history of earnings that have been reported to the Social Security Administration and check to make sure the data is accurate. “If any of your reported annual earnings are incorrect, your ultimate Social Security benefit will be incorrect,” Panko says. For any errors, you can notify the Social Security Administration of the mistake and show past pay stubs or tax returns to indicate which correction should be made.

You may also be able to fill out an application for Social Security retirement benefits through your online account. “Certain types of benefits, such as claiming benefits as the survivor of a deceased spouse, cannot be filed online,” Panko says. For these claims, head to your local Social Security office or call the Social Security Administration.

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