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Social Security 101: How to File for Benefits

Nothing worth doing is ever easy, and so it goes with Social Security. When the time comes to file for your benefits, be prepared. Here are the nuts and bolts of the application process.

While there is an awful lot of debate on when you should file for Social Security benefits and exactly which claiming strategy you should use, the actual process you follow to file is more straightforward, but not without its own confusing issues.

Let’s take a look at those issues and what is required to start getting your payments once you’ve decided it’s time to collect.

Where to start

First, let’s assume you’ve done all your homework and made all your decisions on your claiming strategy and on Medicare. Good job! But your legwork is not done yet. Well before you get the ball rolling on taking your benefits, start your final research push by confirming what your monthly benefit likely will be. Go to Social Security’s My Social Security site to see the current benefit for which you are eligible, based on your earnings record.

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While you’re there, it’s important to check to see that the earnings history they have for you is accurate! Unfortunately, that is not always the case. You will want to correct any inaccurate information and have it updated in the system before you file for benefits.

Once you confirm that all of your information is correct, you’re ready to make an appointment to visit your local Social Security office. Yes, you may need to make an appointment, and that appointment can sometimes take awhile to get, so that’s why I suggest you go well in advance of when you want your first check! You can also apply for benefits online or by phone (800-772-1213), but I still like the old-fashioned way, face to face.

Be prepared to wait

Keep in mind that while it’s good to get an early start, you can’t apply for benefits before age 61 and 9 months. You thought I was going to say 62, right? You can/often should actually file three months before the time you want to receive your first check due to timing issues and delays, etc. Don’t file more than four months in advance however, because the Social Security Administration won’t process applications more than three months before benefit dates.

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Next, when you determine what month your benefits start, realize that it means you’ll actually get your first check the following month! For example, if you start benefits in January, your first check will come in February. This can cause confusion (and consternation) for retirees who are counting on that first payment. You’re going to want to make sure you have plenty of funds available to cover yourself between the time you stop working and the benefit checks start arriving.

What to bring to your appointment

Now that you have an appointment, what do you need to bring with you? Your photo ID, along with your birth certificate and your bank info, so that they can deposit your benefits directly into the account of your choosing. You’ll also need to provide them with the following:

  1. Date and place of birth.
  2. Social Security number.
  3. The name, date of birth and Social Security number(s) of your current AND (if applicable) former spouse.
  4. The names of any of your children under 18, children disabled prior to age 22 or children 18 to 19 years old who are enrolled college.
  5. Confirmation of whether or not you have ever filed for Social Security benefits, Medicare or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) before.
  6. A decision on whether you want to enroll in Medicare Part “B” (if you’re within three months of age 65).
  7. The name and address of your current employer, along with salary information (W-2) for the previous year. (That’s not updated in the system until the following year.)
  8. Dates of any military service, if applicable.
  9. If you are eligible for a pension as a federal government employee.

Final thoughts

Now, you can see that this process isn’t as easy or quick as it might seem. It is also important to note that the person you talk to at the local Social Security office is NOT ALLOWED to help you decide which claiming strategy is best for you or when is the best time you should file! They simply help you file for whatever benefit election you make.

That’s why it is important to do your own research well in advance of filing or seek the advice of a professional who can help you decide these issues before you go.

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About the Author

T. Eric Reich, CIMA®, CFP®, CLU®, ChFC®

President and Founder, Reich Asset Management, LLC

T. Eric Reich, President of Reich Asset Management, LLC, is a Certified Financial Planner™ professional, holds his Certified Investment Management Analyst certification, and holds Chartered Life Underwriter® and Chartered Financial Consultant® designations.

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