How to Apply for Social Security Benefits

By Matthew Frankel Markets Fool.com

Most Americans have the ability to start collecting Social Security retirement benefits at any time between their 62nd and 70th birthdays, but many aren't quite sure how the application process works. Here's how to quickly determine your eligibility and apply. The process is easier than you might think.

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First, determine if you're eligible for Social Security retirement benefits

To be eligible to start collecting your Social Security benefits, you need to be at least 62 years old at the time you intend to receive your first payment. (You can apply a few months before your birthday.)

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In addition, your work record, or that of your spouse, must qualify you for a benefit. Here's a more in-depth discussion of Social Security and how the "credits" system works, but the basic idea is that you need to have worked for at least 10 years during which time you earned at least $5,200 (2017 dollars) per year. If you don't meet this requirement, but your spouse does, you can qualify for a spousal benefit based on your spouse's work record.

If you haven't done so already, it's a good idea to create an account at the Social Security Administration's website (www.ssa.gov) and view your latest Social Security statement. This can definitively tell you if you're eligible for benefits, as well as provide a good estimate of how much you can expect to collect each month.

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The easiest way to apply

Like most financial products and services these days, the easiest way to apply for Social Security retirement benefits is online. According to the Social Security Administration, the entire application should take as little as 15 minutes. You won't have to sign any forms, and most people don't need to submit any documentation.

Using the online application is by far the most convenient option, as you won't have to leave your home, or send anything in the mail. Once you're finished with the application, you'll get a receipt that you can either print or save for your records.

You can use the online application process starting three months before your 62nd birthday, but no more than four months before you want your benefits to start. In other words, you can't apply today for benefits you'd like to start two years from now. However, if you want your Social Security benefits to start at, say, age 65, you can apply as early as 64 years, eight months of age.

Other options

Of course, not everyone wants to apply online. Some people are simply uncomfortable sending sensitive information (like a Social Security number) via computer, and others simply prefer to speak with an actual human being who can help them fill out the application.If you'd prefer not to use the online application, there are two other options.

You can apply by phone by calling the SSA at 1-800-772-1213. Or you can apply in person at your local Social Security office. You can look up your nearest office and its operating hours here, and you're strongly encouraged to make an appointment before coming in -- the phone number is the same as for the phone application. As most people who have been to a Social Security office in the past few years can tell you, the wait times can be quite long.

Questions and answers about applying for Social Security

Finally, here are some common questions Social Security applicants have, as well as the answers (with links to more thorough discussions).

1. What is my full retirement age?
If you were born in 1954 or earlier, your full retirement age for Social Security is 66 years old. If you were born in 1960 or later, your full retirement age is 67. And finally, if you were born between those years, your retirement age is between 66 and 67. Here's a guide that can help you determine your Social Security full retirement age.

2. How much can I expect to get?
The formula used to calculate Social Security is rather complex, but as I mentioned earlier, the best way to estimate your benefits is to create an account at www.ssa.gov and view your most recent Social Security statement.

3. How does my age affect my benefit?
If you claim Social Security before full retirement age, your benefit will be permanently reduced. For up to 36 months early, the reduction rate is 6-2/3% per year, and beyond 36 months, the reduction rate is 5% per year. So, if your full retirement age is 66, claiming your benefit at age 62 will result in a permanent 25% reduction. On the other hand, if you delay retirement, your benefit can be permanently increased by 8% per year for each year you choose to wait, as late as age 70.

4. Can I apply for Social Security if I'm still working?
The short answer is yes, but some or all of your benefit can be withheld, depending on your age and how much you earn. The Social Security "earnings test" can tell you whether you can expect a benefit reduction or not.

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