Social Security

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If you're approaching retirement age, you may have some idea of when you'd like to start receiving Social Security benefits. However, you may not know how the application process works or when you need to apply in order to start receiving benefits at a specific time. Here's what you need to know about how to apply for Social Security, what information you'll need to gather, and when to fill out the application.

Three ways to apply
When it comes time to apply for Social Security retirement benefits, you have three options. You can use the Social Security Administration's online application process, which should take no more than 30 minutes as long as you've gathered all of the required information and documentation (more on that in a bit).

You can also choose to apply by phone, or at your local Social Security office if you'd rather have someone there to assist with the process. Whichever method you feel most comfortable using, your application will be reviewed and processed as soon as all necessary documentation and information is received. And, the Social Security Administration will notify you if it turns out you could qualify for higher benefits on your spouse's record, or if other family members can receive benefits on your work record.

When should you apply?
In order to apply for Social Security benefits, you need to be at least 61 years and nine months old, but you won't begin receiving benefits until you turn 62. Once you've reached the minimum age of eligibility (62), you should be able to apply and start your benefits in the same month, so you really don't need to rush and apply early unless you foresee any delays with documentation or have special circumstances. In general, the Social Security Administration says that you should apply for benefits no more than four months before the date you want your benefits to start.

Bear in mind that Social Security benefits are paid in the month after they are due. So, if you start your benefits on your 62nd birthday, you won't start receiving payments until the following month.

Additionally, if you don't need your Social Security benefits right way, consider delaying your application in order to increase your monthly disbursements down the road.

Finally, it's also worth noting that even if you decide to wait to claim benefits, you should still fill out the benefit application just to apply for Medicare three months before you turn 65. As long as you've earned enough Social Security credits (available on your SS statement), you are eligible for Medicare whether or not you are ready to begin receiving your retirement benefits. Delaying your application for Medicare can result in higher premiums, so it's important to do it as soon as possible.

What information will you need?
In order to apply for Social Security benefits, you'll need to be able to document some information about your identity and work history. Specifically, before applying you should have the following information handy:

  • Your date and place of birth (which you need to document with an original birth certificate)
  • Your Social Security number
  • Your spouse's Social Security number and date of birth
  • Place of marriage
  • Date of divorce or death of your spouse, if applicable
  • Names of your unmarried children under 18 (or 18-19 if still in high school), and disabled children under 22
  • Your bank account information if you want your benefits directly deposited
  • The name and address of your employers from this and last year
  • The amount of money you earned last year, this year, and your estimated earnings next year (if any)
  • A copy of last year's W-2 or self-employment tax return
  • Your earnings record (a copy of your Social Security statement has this information)
  • Records of any active duty military service before 1968 (documented with a copy of your military service papers)

If you use the online or phone application, you'll be given a list of required documents, as well as instructions of how to submit them.

This is not an exhaustive list, and there are many special circumstances that will require additional documentation. For example, if you have used a different Social Security number at any point in your life, you'll need to document that. A more complete list can be found on the SSA's website here.

Things to consider...
This is simply meant to give you information of how to apply for Social Security benefits. There are several other things to consider before applying, such as the impact of applying early or late and whether or not you might benefit from using certain Social Security strategies.

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