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A Step-by-Step Guide to Filing for Social Security

By Matthew Frankel, CFP® - Updated Mar 15, 2018 at 12:10PM

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Are you ready to file for Social Security? Here's how to know for sure, and what to do if you're ready.

If you're 62 or older, you have the ability to file for Social Security retirement benefits. After you determine that you're ready to file, you need to know when to file so your benefits start at the right time. You'll also have to decide how you want to apply -- online at the Social Security Administration's (SSA) website, in person at a Social Security office, or over the phone.

SS application

Image source: Getty Images.

Are you ready to file?
While there is a normal retirement age for Social Security purposes, there is an eight-year window during which you have the ability to file for retirement benefits. You can choose to start your benefits as early as age 62, or as late as age 70. Well, technically you can wait as long as you want, but there is no advantage to doing so beyond 70.

If you choose to file earlier or later than your normal retirement age, your benefit will be permanently reduced or increased according to these rules:

  • For every year before your full retirement age, your benefit will be reduced by six and two-thirds percent, up to three years early. On a monthly basis, this translates to five-ninths of a percent per month early.
  • Beyond three years, the reduction rate is 5% per year, or five-twelves of a percent per month.
  • If you delay retirement, your benefits will be permanently increased by 8% per year (two-thirds of a percent per month) beyond your normal retirement age.

Since you probably want to make sure you'll have enough retirement income, it's important to be fully aware of the effects of early or late retirement on your benefit payments. The best way to estimate your Social Security benefit is to create an account at www.ssa.gov and view your latest Social Security statement. Here you'll find an estimate of your monthly benefit at your full retirement age, as well as how much it could be at 62 or 70.

If you want to see the effects of any other retirement age, simply use your statement's estimated full retirement benefit, and then reduce or increase it according to the percentages listed above. For example, if your full retirement benefit is estimated to be $1,500 per month and you wish to retire a year before your normal retirement age, reducing your benefit by six and two-thirds percent results in a new benefit amount of $1,400 per month.

Another important consideration is if you anticipate qualifying for benefits on your spouse's work record, which has an additional restriction. In addition to the requirement that you need to be at least 62 years old, your spouse must be receiving retirement benefits as well. You and your spouse can apply at the same time, but under no circumstances will you be allowed to collect a spousal benefit before your spouse applies for his/her own retirement benefit.

When you need to apply
As I mentioned already, you can start receiving benefits as early as age 62 or as late as age 70. The earliest you can apply for Social Security benefits (including spousal benefits) is when you are 61 years and nine months of age.

According to the SSA, you should apply for benefits three months before you want them to start. So, if you want your retirement benefits to start in January 2017, you should apply three months prior to that date, in October 2016. The earliest you're allowed to apply is four months before you want your benefits to start, unless of course, doing so would make you younger than 61 years and nine months old.

Another thing to keep in mind is Medicare, especially if you're planning to file for Social Security after the age of 65. In this case, you should still sign up for Medicare three months before you turn 65, in order to avoid missing your initial enrollment period and facing penalties.

Finally, keep in mind that Social Security benefits are paid in the month after they're due. In other words, your benefit payment for September will be made in October. Keep this in mind when you're choosing when you should file.

Ways to file: online, in person, or by phone
By far, the easiest way to apply for Social Security is online. The application can be found here, and generally takes about 15 minutes to complete. There will be no additional forms to sign and there is usually no further documentation required. Once you've applied, your application will be reviewed, and the SSA will contact you when they've made a decision, or if they need more information. You can also check the status of your application online.

If you don't want to apply online, you have a couple of other options. You can apply over the phone at 1-800-772-1213 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, or you can visit your local Social Security office. If you choose this option, it's recommended that you call and make an appointment in order to avoid long wait times.

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