As you approach retirement and consider applying for Social Security benefits, there are several steps you will need to take. You’ll want to research your benefit options, be aware of what to expect and get everything ready before starting the process. The steps to apply for Social Security include:
1. Consider the timing of your application.
2. Gather all the necessary documents.
3. Create a my Social Security account.
4. Fill out a Social Security application.
Follow these guidelines to save time and make the most of the Social Security benefits available to you.
1. Consider the Timing of Your Application
The timing of your application can impact the amount you will receive in benefits. 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. “Keep in mind that 85% of the Social Security income is taxable if your income is more than $34,000,” says Syed Nishat, partner at Wall Street Alliance Group in New York. “If the income is between $25,000 to $34,000, the tax is on 50% of the benefit.” 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.
2. Gather All the Necessary Documents
Once you’ve thought through the timing of your benefits, you’ll want to collect all the documents you’ll need. While most of the documents may be easy to gather, it can be helpful to put everything in one place. That way, when you fill out the application, you can do so in a timely way.
The documents you need to apply for Social Security include:
— 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 a 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).
3. 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.
4. Fill Out a Social Security Application
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. “In the age of COVID, it’s best to apply online at ssa.gov,” says John Hill, president of Gateway Retirement in Rock Hill, South Carolina. 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.
You can expect to receive Social Security benefits based on your earnings history. Even if you aren’t eligible for benefits based on your work record, you may qualify for benefits based on someone else’s records. For instance, you might be able to apply for Social Security benefits through your spouse or ex-spouse.
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.
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Update 02/17/21: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.