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The Smart Way to Claim Social Security Benefits During the Coronavirus Pandemic

By Barbara Eisner Bayer - Updated Mar 17, 2021 at 8:37PM

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If you're ready to file for Social Security benefits, here are five steps to guide you.

Are you ready to apply for Social Security benefits? Have you made your retirement plan, run the different scenarios, and decided that now's the time? Unfortunately, Social Security offices are closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, so you can't just walk in and discuss it with a counselor. There are, however, several other ways to claim your benefits, and they're much simpler than walking into an office.

Luckily, the Social Security Administration (SSA) is performing all services via telephone or online. It's easiest to do it online, but if you're having difficulty navigating the website, you can make an appointment with a Social Security representative for a telephone consultation. Here are five steps to guide you through the process.

A hand holding a Social Security card

Image source: Getty Images.

Step 1: Do an information review

First, sign up for an account and review your latest Social Security statement. That will let you know the amount of benefit you're eligible for. Review your earnings history to make sure everything is accurate. This is important, because your benefit amount is based on how much you've earned over your lifetime. If that information is wrong, you may not get the full amount you're entitled to.

A woman stands, with notepad and pen, behind a laptop on a desk.

Image source: Getty Images.

Step 2: Gather your documents

When you're applying for benefits, you generally need the following documents:

  • Your birth certificate
  • Proof of your U.S. citizenship
  • A copy of your U.S. military service paper(s) if you served in the military before 1968
  • A copy of your W-2 form(s) and/or your tax return for last year if you were self-employed
  • Your Social Security card

The agency may also request the following information, so make sure you have it:

  • Your date and place of birth
  • Your spouse's name, birth date, and Social Security number and information about your former spouses. They may even ask for the date and location at which you got married, and the dates of any divorce or death.
  • The names of your children
  • If you've previously applied for Social Security benefits, Medicare, or Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

This is the pandemic era, however, so you can't go into the SSA office with your documents. If you file online or via telephone, you'll only need the information on these documents. If you call, make sure you have this information in one spot so you can give it to your representative easily.

An older person on a cellphone

Image source: Getty Images.

Step 3: Decide if you want to file online or over the telephone

The easiest way to apply for benefits is to use the online application process. According to the Social Security website: "[A]pplying for Retirement/Medicare may take between 10 to 30 minutes to complete depending on your situation. You can save your application as you go, so you can take a break at any time."

If your situation is complicated or you're uncomfortable using the internet to file, you can make an appointment to file via telephone by calling 800-772-1213. (If you're deaf/hard of hearing, you can call 800-325-0778.) The phones are monitored Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. At the time of your appointment, the representative will call you. Don't be concerned if the call is late -- Social Security reps, like the rest of us, often run behind schedule.

You should file one or two months before you want benefits to begin, but if you're the worrying type, you can do it up to three or four months before. It takes a little time to process the paperwork; by putting in your application a few months early, you can fix any problems that come up without it interfering with your starting date.

Hand filling out Social Security application form

Image source: Getty Images.

Step 4: Fill out the application

During pre-pandemic days, you could just walk into the Social Security office and fill out an application. Since offices are closed, however, you can do it online.

If you start to complete the application form but find that it's too confusing or complicated, call the agency and set up a phone appointment. During the call, the Social Security representative will fill out the form for you.

A man holds several fanned out monetary bills in an open wallet.

Image source: Getty Images.

Step 5, the final step: Get your benefits

Voila... you're done! After you file, you'll receive a letter in the mail that tells you how much you'll receive each month. If you're already receiving Medicare through direct withdrawal from your bank account, you no longer need to do that -- the monthly Medicare fee will be deducted directly from your benefits.

In general, Social Security checks are paid on the second, third, and fourth Wednesdays of every month, but the day you'll receive yours is dependent on your birth date, according to the following schedule:

  • If you were born between the 1st and the 10th, you'll receive the check on the second Wednesday.
  • If you were born between the 11th and the 20th, the third Wednesday.
  • If you were born between the 21st and 31st, the fourth Wednesday.

It's easier than ever to apply for Social Security during the pandemic either online or via phone. Once you do, sit back, wait for the money to be directly deposited in your account, and begin enjoying your retirement. You've earned every penny of it!

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