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How to apply for Social Security

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Millions of baby boomers are primed to retire in the coming decade, and some of the biggest decisions they’ll need to make are how and when to apply for Social Security. You have several options when you’re looking to start your Social Security benefits, giving you a lot of flexibility.

Bankrate spoke with planning experts on how to apply for Social Security and what you need to pay particular attention to as you’re navigating the process, including when to start drawing benefits.

Three ways to apply for Social Security

If you’re approaching retirement and you’re thinking about how to start your Social Security benefits, you have three options for how to apply:

  • Go to your local Social Security office.
  • Call a Social Security representative (1-800-772-1213).
  • Open an account and apply online (ssa.gov).

Each approach offers some benefits and drawbacks, so consider which works best for you.

Go to the Social Security office

Heading to your local Social Security office may be the best option, but it’s also less possible these days.

“I usually recommend someone who isn’t technologically efficient to apply in person or over the phone,” says Daniel Vredeveld, CFP, financial advisor at Richmond Brothers in Jackson, Michigan. “It usually helps to work directly with someone, that way you can avoid making accidental mistakes.”

But an in-person appointment may come with drawbacks, for example, if you have physical limitations or are concerned about the spread of COVID.

Set up a phone appointment

In contrast, a phone appointment might be the best balance of convenience and directly talking with a representative, and you don’t have to be computer savvy either. You can call your local office or 1-800-772-1213 to reach the national line Monday through Friday between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Eastern Time.

Vredeveld says that his firm’s clients have had “really good experiences” when they pre-schedule an appointment, though it may not be possible to schedule an appointment earlier than one or two months out. So, plan accordingly.

Apply online

Some advisors recommend that clients apply online.

The easiest way to apply is to do it online, says Wade Pfau, a professor at the American College of Financial Services in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. He points out that potential applicants can see the Social Security application form before they begin the process.

Some advisors are even helping clients walk through the online application, such as Mark Wilson, founder of MILE Wealth Management in Irvine, California.

“The online application process can work for most clients,” says Wilson. When sitting down to apply, retirees should read this Social Security brochure so they know the documents to have ready, he suggests.

But if you’re applying online, you’ll want to have a good idea of what benefit options are available and what makes sense for you. And in this case it can be valuable to speak with a financial advisor, especially one who has experience in Social Security benefits, says Chuck Czajka, CEO of Macro Money Concepts in Stuart, Florida.

When to apply for Social Security

You’ll want to initiate the process at least several months before you want to start receiving benefits, but many potential Social Security recipients are much more concerned about when it makes the most financial sense to start their benefits. Unfortunately, there isn’t one answer for everybody, and the best age for taking benefits depends on your specific situation.

“The most important consideration is when you should claim your benefits,” says Czajka.

Smart planning can help you boost your benefits and actually help you get tens of thousands more dollars over your lifetime.

The biggest mistake Vredeveld sees is “a client not realizing all of the choices that are out there and just deciding to start taking Social Security as soon as they can. Over the course of their lifetime, it could be a $100,000 mistake by taking it early versus taking it later.”

That said, there are some guidelines for when to take Social Security, but experts can’t stress enough that these guidelines may not apply in every situation.

“Generally speaking, the longer you live, the better it is to wait on taking Social Security,” says Vredeveld. “If you have a shorter life expectancy, either from genetics or health issues, you may want to start sooner.”

You’ll receive a higher monthly check if you delay starting your benefit until full retirement age or even later.

Experts point to other factors that you’ll want to consider as you’re contemplating your decision:

  • Your marital status
  • Your earnings history
  • Your other sources of income such as government pensions
  • Whether you have young children
  • Whether you have a prior spouse

For example, your earnings history is a key factor in how much Social Security money you get.

“The best way to look at Social Security benefits and when to take them is to optimize them with other retirement plans,” says Czajka. “In many cases, it might make sense to postpone taking benefits and utilize other retirement assets first.”

By thinking about your retirement planning holistically you may be able to lower the taxes you pay on your Social Security benefit or even eliminate taxes entirely, depending on your income.

That kind of planning can be complicated, so it can be useful to consult a financial advisor, a move that could quickly pay for itself, if tens of thousands are at stake based on your decision.

How long does it take to get approved for Social Security

It’s important that you plan for when you want your benefits to start. They are not turned on like a water faucet. If you’re claiming Social Security retirement benefits, plan on at least six weeks for your application to be processed. However, if your application has incorrect information or the agency is backlogged, it could take up to three months before benefits begin, warns AARP. However, you cannot apply for benefits more than four months before you want them to begin, according to the Social Security Administration.

So it’s a good idea to start the application at least three months before you want your benefits to start. Otherwise, you may end up with a deficit in your finances during the transition period.

Bottom line

Applying for Social Security benefits can actually be a relatively simple process. But if you want to get your benefits at a specific time, you’ll have to plan ahead, since the lead time can be substantial. For many retirees, however, the more important question is when to take benefits.

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Written by
James Royal
Senior investing and wealth management reporter
Bankrate senior reporter James F. Royal, Ph.D., covers investing and wealth management. His work has been cited by CNBC, the Washington Post, The New York Times and more.
Edited by
Senior wealth editor