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How to Apply for Social Security

What most people think of as Social Security is just one part of a much larger program. In 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act—legislation that provided for Retired Worker Benefits, Survivor Benefits and Disabled Worker Benefits. This post focuses on Retired Worker Benefits—that money you’re expecting to see after all those years of payroll deductions.

What Do I Need to Know to Get Social Security?

So, the day has finally arrived. You’ve decided to sign up and start collecting your Social Security benefits. Before you start the process, ask yourself an important question: Is this the right time? Be sure you understand what your retirement needs are going to be.
You can start collecting at age 62, which is definitely the right move for some people. However, the standard retirement age set by the government is several years older and depends on the year you were born. Your circumstances may dictate you wait a few extra years.
If you’re sure this the right time, the process isn’t very difficult. If you’re about to turn 62, you’re eligible to apply three months before your birthday. After age 62, apply four months before you want your benefits to start.

Where Do I Apply for Social Security?

Where else do you do anything these days? Online.
But that’s not the only option. You can call the Social Security Administration at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) and you can even make an appointment with your local Social Security office to apply in-person.
If you live outside the United States and you are checking in to Social Security, you may have a U.S. Social Security office nearby. If not, check with the nearest U.S. Embassy or consulate about how to apply for your benefits.

What Else Do I Need to Do Once I Submit My Application?

The social Security Administration does at times require additional documentation. You might not need to provide it, but it’s a good idea to have the following available, just in case:

  • Your Social Security card (or some official record of your number)
  • Your original birth certificate or other proof of birth (a certified copy of your birth certificate is acceptable)
  • Copies of your W-2 form(s) and/or self-employment tax return for the previous year
  • If you were born outside the United States: proof of your citizenship or lawful alien status
  • If you were a member of the U.S. Military: a copy of your military service paper(s) (e.g., DD-214 – Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty) if you served before 1968

How Much Are My Social Security Benefits Each Month?

The dollar amount of your benefits is based on how much money you earned in the course of your working life. Essentially, Social Security crunches numbers from the 35 years during which you earned the most, running them through some calculations that determine your “basic benefit” or “primary insurance amount.”
Basically, the more you earned, the higher the benefit. On the other side of that coin, your benefits can be lowered by being out of the work force for periods of time and by years in which your earnings were low (e.g., “slow years” for someone who is self-employed).
Another factor in determining the amount of your benefits is the application age. The longer you stay in the work force, the more you’ll pay into Social Security, which raises the amount of your eventual benefit. If you start collecting at 62, you’ll get less money than if you wait until age 70 (when the maximum benefit kicks in).

Will I Need to Pay Taxes on Social Security?

Maybe. About 40 percent of people find themselves paying tax on their Social Security benefits. Up to 85 percent of your Social Security benefits may be subject to taxation, but no more than 85 percent.
Usually, those taxes are triggered by significant income in addition to the benefits. That can include wages from a job, earnings from self-employment, interest, dividends—any taxable income that needs to be reported on your tax return.

When Do My Social Security Benefits Run Out?

We can’t answer this one without bringing up an unpleasant subject—mortality. Your Social Security retirement benefits end with your death. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to live comfortably all that time.
This question provides an excellent opportunity to make an important point: You shouldn’t count on Social Security alone to meet all of your financial needs in retirement.
Do yourself a favor and look into ways of supplementing your Social Security. There are investment possibilities to explore, as well as jobs you might enjoy.
Here’s wishing you a happy and satisfying retirement, whenever you decide to begin it.
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