Congratulations, you’ve done the work to figure out when to start claiming Social Security and realized it’s sometime in the next four months.
WHEN to claim is a separate issue from how to sign up. It depends on whether you’re claiming under your spouse’s earnings, whether you’re widowed, whether you’re likely to live past 77, whether you’re still contributing to a Health Savings Account, how much you’re earning this year, and whether you’ll starve to death if you don’t start claiming it. You’ll also need to know what your Full Retirement Age (FRA) is: something in between 66 and 67 as this article is written. WHEN to claim is something to discuss with a financial planner!
For the sake of this article, let’s imagine that you’ve solved for that and you know the date you’ll reach the age you want to start.
Now it’s time to finally go start collecting your Social Security!
Okay, what now?
Sit down and think about your marital history. The application will ask, so get this stuff ready.
What were your dates of marriage to anyone you’ve ever married?
What were the dates of any divorces or deaths?
If you divorced someone after less than 10 years of marriage you can leave that marriage out without it affecting anything. (Phew!)
Now gather together the Social Security numbers, places married, and birth dates of any spouses you were married to for over ten years.
Even if you weren’t married for ten years, if your spouse died while you were married to them AND you didn’t remarry before the age of 60, AND the marriage lasted at least nine months, get that spouse’s info, too.
Don’t try to gather together all the marriage certificates or divorce decrees or death certificates just yet, but know that you may need to go gather some or all of these later.
The first step is to go to https://www.ssa.gov/onlineservices/ and create an account (or, if you already have one, figure out how to sign in). This is its own hurdle.
Please make sure you write down your username and password in your password manager.
Don’t have a password manager? This is a great time to get one.
You’ll need to use 2-Factor Authentication (2FA) on the Social Security website. Use an email address or a cellphone number that can reach you while in your financial advisor’s office, please!
Now review your earnings history.
Login to Social Security and scroll down to “Review your full earnings record now.” Scroll through time and just eyeball it. Does it make sense? Medicare earnings might be higher; that’s okay.
These figures come from W-2s filed by your employers and from Schedule SEs filed along with your business Schedule C each year.
You’re looking to see if they’ve screwed up your record and put your earnings on someone else’s number. This used to be more common when women changed names, for example.
The other thing that goes wrong is that your employer might not have reported things correctly to the Social Security Administration. This is a moment to check on that. (There are solutions if that happened, don’t worry.)
Just make sure any gaps were either because you weren’t working or because you were working for a job that didn’t pay into Social Security, like one at the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Be ready to estimate your Social Security-eligible earnings for this calendar year.
Gather together your earnings for last calendar year (W-2 or, if you’re self-employed, Schedule SE) if it didn’t show up in your Earnings Record.
Think about what your income will look like when you’re on Social Security. Will you want Federal income tax withholding on your benefits? (Ask your tax advisor this one.)
If you are ONLY living on Social Security then you don’t need to withhold any income taxes.
Choices are preset at 7%, 10%, 12% or 22%. If you guess wrong, you’ll figure it out at tax time and will either get a refund or owe more then.
You can always change the withholding later, too: use Form W-4V and mail it to your local Social Security office.
Go find the routing information and checking account number for where you want your checks deposited.
This is easy if you have a checkbook: just have it handy while you’re doing the application.
That’s it, now you’re ready to apply!
Except, wait: there’s one more hurdle. Are you applying under your own name for retirement benefits, or under that of a deceased spouse? You can see what benefits you might want to apply for here, but let’s get your claim started for retirement benefits first. (You’ll need to know which is the higher amount, right?) You’ll need to do a few extra steps later for Survivor’s benefits, anyway.
You’re going to just fill in a bunch of information page after page. Keep going.
Towards the end it’ll tell you the date your application is being filed, and then on the next page it’ll ask what month you want it to start.
This is where things get weird. Social Security considers your birthday to begin “in the month of the day before your birthday.”
So if you were born on April 30th, you say APRIL.
If you were born on April 1st, ask to start in MARCH.
They just ask for the month; the day doesn’t matter at all unless your birthday falls on the 1st, in which case it gets you an extra month!
There’s a benefit for waiting as long as possible UP UNTIL THE MONTH YOU TURN 70. Start as close to the month you turn 70 as possible, but not later.
Social security benefits are paid in arrears, so if you ask to start in April your first check will come in early May.
There’s one thing to watch out for! Social Security will allow you to backdate your claim as much as six months. Unless you’re over 70 already, this is usually a bad idea! It effectively undoes the work you did waiting for the benefits to accrue. It can also mess up your tax planning, as you’ll get a bunch of social security all in a lump.
The only times you would want to backdate an application is:
When you desperately need a large lump of money as fast as possible and are willing to take the income hit for every month forever after, or
When you’re already past the age of 70, in which case you’ll want to date it back to the month they considered you turning 70.
Note that this effectively means you have six months past your 70th birthday to get this application in.
Good luck, you can do this!