Most retirees count on Social Security to provide a substantial portion of their retirement income. That makes it critical to understand how to apply for Social Security when the time is right. Fortunately, the Social Security Administration has set up a process that's as easy to follow as possible in helping you apply for Social Security.
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The easy choice: Going online
The SSA encourages people approaching retirement age to use its online application to apply for benefits. Many people are eligible to apply online by using this SSA link, and the SSA says that going through the entire online application process can take as little as 15 minutes. Compared to what can be a long wait at a local Social Security office, the convenience that the online app offers can be huge.
A snapshot of how you'll start your application. Image source: SSA.
In order to apply for Social Security online, you have to meet some qualifications that the SSA sets forth. The most important is that you must be at least 61 years and nine months old when you apply, and you have to have a planned start date for your Social Security benefits that's no more than four months from when you apply. If you've already gotten benefits on your own Social Security work record, then you can't use the online application process. Also, those who've already applied for benefits in the past aren't eligible. You can use the online application both for regular retirement benefits based on your own work history as well as spousal benefits based on your spouse's work history.
The online application begins with questions to get key personal information that will help the SSA establish your Social Security eligibility. In order to prepare for the process, you should get together the documents and records that the SSA refers to during the process. That includes information on any current or former spouses you have, as well as your recent employment history. If you served in the military, then details about your service record can also be helpful. Once you've gathered that information, you'll then turn to the full application. Some information will be auto-filled by answers to previous questions, but you'll still have to complete some of the form on your own. Once you're done, you can use an electronic signature system in order to finalize your application and send it to the SSA for further review.
From there, your application will go to the SSA, which will take a look and see if it needs more information. It will also give you information about any other benefits that might potentially be available to you based on the information you provided. After the SSA is comfortable that your application is complete and accurate, then it will move forward with full processing. Once that process is complete, the SSA will send you a letter with its decision about benefits.
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If you don't want to go on the Internet
The online application process is the easiest way to apply for Social Security, but it's not the only way. The SSA provides a toll-free number for you to call, and representatives will be available to answer calls at 1-800-772-1213 between the hours of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Your other primary option is to visit your local Social Security office. This SSA link can help you find the office nearest you. Wait times can be longer, and the process isn't as quick as using the online option. However, if you need personal assistance with your application, it can be helpful to be face-to-face with a government employee who has specialized knowledge about Social Security.
Applying for Social Security might sound intimidating, but it doesn't have to be. By following these simple procedures, you can get the benefits you've worked a lifetime to earn.
The article How to Apply for Social Security Benefits originally appeared on Fool.com.
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