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Social Security Retirement Benefits: How and When to File

Step 1: Are You Eligible for Benefits?

In order to be eligible for retirement benefits, you must have earned enough credits to begin collecting benefits. If you were born in 1929 or after, you will need 40 credits, which is equivalent to working for 10 years. In order for the time spent working to count towards your credits, you must have paid Social Security taxes on the wages. For example, if you were part of a pension plan and did not pay Social Security taxes on your wages, you most likely did not earn any credits towards retirement benefits during that time.

You also must meet certain age requirements. The earliest you may begin collecting retirement benefits is at age 62. However, if you begin taking benefits before you have reached your full retirement age, the amount you receive will be permanently reduced. If you were born in 1938 or before, your full retirement age is 65. If you were born after 1938, the full retirement age has been scaled between 65 and 67 to take into account longer life expectancies for Americans. You can determine your full retirement age by going to the Social Security Administration Web site at http://www.ssa.gov.

The amount of benefits you will receive each month will depend on what you earned while you worked and what age you begin receiving benefits. For example, if you decide to keep working after you have reached your full retirement age, you will continue earning credits towards your Social Security benefits. You also can choose to continue working and receive your retirement benefits, but the amount you receive may be reduced, depending on how much you make.

Step 2: Gathering the Necessary Documentation

In order to prove your eligibility for benefits, there are several documents you will need to have, including:

  • Social Security card
  • Birth certificate
  • Military discharge papers (if service was prior to 1968)
  • A copy of last year's W-2 form or tax return if self-employed
  • Cancelled check (if you would like to set up direct deposit)

If you were not born in the US, you will need to have a copy of your permanent alien registration card (Green Card) or proof of US citizenship.

If you also are filing for spouse or dependent child benefits, you will need to have their Social Security cards and birth certificates as well.

Keep in mind that these documents must be originals or certified copies — photocopies will not be accepted and will delay your benefits application. However, even if you do not have all of the necessary documents, you still should begin the application process. The Social Security office may be able to help you gather the missing documentation.

Step 3: Filing Your Application

You should plan on applying for benefits a full three months in advance of the date you would like to begin receiving benefits. You can submit your application online through the Social Security Administration Web site, in person at your local Social Security office or by phone. If you would like to submit your application in person, it is important that you make an appointment for your visit.

Determining the right age to file for Social Security retirement benefits should be made after you consider several factors, including your health, whether you would like to continue working and your other sources of income. Social Security retirement benefits are meant to supplement your other retirement savings, not replace your lost wages in whole, so it is important to plan in advance for this important time in your life.

Preparing to Meet with Your Estate Planning Attorney

To read and print out a copy of the checklist, please follow the link below.

Preparing to Meet with Your Estate Planning Attorney

You can download a free copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader here.

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