Several Social Security cards with a gold key sitting on top of them

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Social Security and Medicare together make up the backbone of financial support for retirees in America. Social Security provides basic financial support, and Medicare takes care of the majority of healthcare costs for its participants. Given that most retirees are eligible for both Social Security and Medicare, one obvious question is whether you can sign up for both programs at the same time. The answer depends on your particular retirement wishes, but if your financial plans work out in a way that allows you to coordinate the two programs, then you'll often be able to use a single application to participate in both Medicare and Social Security.

Different ages for different benefits

One of the complexities involved in signing up for Social Security and Medicare is that people become eligible for the two programs at different times. Social Security retirement benefits are available as early as age 62, but most people don't become eligible to receive Medicare benefits until age 65.

If you happen to want to retire right at age 65 and therefore want to start getting Social Security and Medicare benefits at the same time, then it's easy to coordinate those benefits. The Social Security Administration handles the sign-up process for both Social Security and Medicare, and you can use a single application to file for both benefits if you're within three months of your 65th birthday. The SSA's online retirement application website is the easiest way to start.

However, if you have other plans for when to retire, then you'll need to think carefully. There are two possible scenarios.

Scenario 1: You want to get Social Security before you're eligible for Medicare.

Many people take Social Security benefits at age 62 or shortly thereafter, long before they hit the age 65 eligibility mark for Medicare. In that case, the process for coordinating benefits is easier than you might think.

First, you'll file an application to receive your Social Security benefits. When you reach age 65, because you were already getting benefits from Social Security, Medicare will automatically enroll you in Part A hospital coverage and Part B medical coverage beginning on the first day of the month that you turn 65. Typically, you'll get an enrollment package three months before your 65th birthday, and it will include your Medicare card as well as some basic information.

You'll need to take further action if you don't want to enroll in Part B, if you want to add prescription drug coverage under Medicare Part D, or you want to buy a Medicare supplemental insurance policy. Still, the nearly automatic nature of the process can be to your benefit, as it ensures that you'll be covered even if you take no action.

Medicare enrollment form

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Scenario 2: You want to wait to take Social Security until well after you're eligible for Medicare.

The opposite situation is a bit trickier. The SSA allows you to apply online just to receive Medicare benefits if you aren't yet ready to claim your Social Security. That will meet the requirements for getting Medicare coverage within the appropriate initial enrollment period, avoiding any potential penalties that can result from missing that deadline.

Later on, you can apply for retirement or spousal Social Security benefits based on your time schedule. This allows you to take advantage of delayed retirement credits on your retirement benefits, boosting your monthly check by 8% per year beyond your full retirement age. The later application process isn't automatic as it is with Medicare, but it does give you the financial flexibility to tailor your retirement planning to your specific needs.

As you can see, in many cases, you can sign up for Medicare and Social Security at the same time. Even if you don't get benefits simultaneously, the process is typically simple unless you decide to delay taking Social Security beyond the 65-year-old eligibility age for Medicare benefits.