When and how to apply for social security benefits
Hundreds of thousands of people will apply for Social Security benefits in 2022. So today I am going to write a column about when and how to apply for Social Security benefits.
But first, let me clarify the “when to file” part. As I have said over and over again in this column, I am not a financial planner. So, I really can’t advise you on the best time to start your Social Security benefits. It’s a decision that only you can make, perhaps after consulting a real financial planner.
I’m just an old Social Security retiree. All I can do is explain the Social Security rules to you to help you make this decision. (In my book Social security – simple and smart, I have an entire chapter devoted to this topic, so you might want to check it out. You can order the book online at Amazon.com.)
So whether you make that decision on your own or with the help of my book or a financial planner, once you’ve decided what month you want your benefits to begin, a lot of you still want to know. how far in advance you need to deposit for these benefits. This is the “when to drop” advice that I offer in this column.
Let me start by pointing out something. Your Social Security eligibility date is always a month, not a day. For example, let’s say you were born on January 28, 1956 and you want your benefits to start at your full retirement age (FRA). The full retirement age for people born in 1956 is 66 years and 4 months. So you will reach full retirement age on May 28, 2022. But the day you reach FRA is not much of a problem. The month is the key. In other words, your eligibility date is not May 28, 2022. It’s just May 2022.
The Social Security Administration recommends that you file three months before your eligibility month. So if you wanted your benefits to start in May, you could start the ball rolling in February 2022.
I used to advise people that there really was no need to rush as most Social Security pension claims are very straightforward and SSA processed them within days. So in the past I would have told people with a May eligibility date that they could even wait until April if they wanted and that there would be a very good chance that their first check would arrive on time.
But the pandemic seems to have messed things up in SSA. I have heard many readers tell me about delays in accessing SSA in the first place or in starting their benefits. So, I guess my motto at the moment is: Better safe than sorry. So, file your social security application three months before your first month of eligibility.
But don’t let me scare you. Once you have contacted the SSA, you have established what they call a “protection filing date” and your benefit entitlements are guaranteed from that month on. For example, let’s say you wanted your benefits to start in January 2022. But for some reason you couldn’t file your claim until January 25, 2022. Even though your claim might not be processed until February (or may – even being March in these troubled times by COVID-19), you will be reimbursed until January.
This is the “when to drop” message. About three months in advance would be ideal. So now, let’s tackle the question “how to file”.
Probably 90% of us have fairly straightforward social security claims. This means that you are simply filing your own Social Security benefits. In that case, I highly recommend that you file online at www.socialsecurity.gov. It’s simple and easy. I did this a few years ago and it probably took me half an hour to complete the process. Check out the website yourself and see how easy it is.
But if you have a scenario that you think might be complicated (like trying to get a combination of pension and spousal benefits) then you probably should do it in person. Call SSA at 800-772-1213 to arrange a phone interview. (According to the SSA website, office appointments to file Social Security claims are not offered at this time.)
If you are applying for widow’s benefits, it must be done over the phone. Applications for widowhood benefits cannot be made online. This is because there may be deposit options a widow has that are easier to explain by talking to someone in person rather than online.
What documents do you need to file for social security benefits? It depends on what kind of advantage you are trying to achieve. Think of it this way: you usually need to provide some sort of proof to support your eligibility for such benefits. For example, if it is a request for retirement, you must prove that you are old enough to qualify. To do this, you need a birth certificate. If you are applying for spousal benefits, you not only need to prove your age, but you also need to show that you are married to the person you are applying from Social Security. It would therefore be a marriage certificate.
If you are a divorced spouse, you will also need to provide your divorce papers. If you want to apply for widowhood benefits, in addition to proving your age and marriage, you also need a death certificate. In all cases, SSA wishes to see original copies of these documents, or copies certified by the issuer of the recording.
One document you don’t need is your social security card. I hear all the time panicked people telling me that they are about to apply for Social Security benefits and they cannot find their SSN card. I tell them to relax. You do not need the card when you register with Social Security.
Speaking of social security numbers, many divorced women tell me that they are pretty sure they could get the benefits of an ex-spouse’s social security record. But they don’t have the guy’s social security number, and they’re worried they won’t get benefits without the number. In these cases, the SSA will be able to find the SSN of the ex. They might need some identifying information from you (like name, date and place of birth, etc.), but you should be able to provide it to them.
To learn more about Tom Margenau and read previous columns, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.