The ins and outs of applying for Social Security benefits

Pundits spend a good deal of time advising Americans about the best age to claim Social Security – at age 62, at full retirement age, at age 70 and the like.

But they hardly ever discuss the nuts and bolts of applying for Social Security benefits. They should.

You see, the seemingly simple act of completing an application for retirement, spouse’s, disability benefits isn’t always as straightforward as you might think. “I had a client once who described this as ‘the most complicated and bureaucratic process known to mankind,’” says Robin Brewton, the chief operations officer for Social Security Solutions.

Here’s what experts say you need to know.

Start three months before you want payments. “It doesn’t take that long to clear a claim—no way,” says Andy Landis, author of Social Security: The Inside Story. “But (starting the process early) allows time to iron out any wrinkles that come up, like finding your military discharge form – DD Form 214, Discharge Papers and Separation Documents – or other documents. Then it’s clear sailing to your first payment.”

Others suggest the same. If you want benefits to start on your 66th birth month go to the Social Security office three months prior to your birth month, says Ted Sarenski, the CEO of Blue Ocean Strategic Capital. “Social Security will only give retroactive benefits six months prior so in no case go to them more than six months past your birth month if you intend to begin benefits on your birth month.”

Most claims are done online these days. You really don’t have to apply for benefits in person anymore. Just go to www.ssa.gov and click on the “retirement” box for retirement, spousal or Medicare claims. “There are great instructions and tips there,” says Landis. “Then it takes maybe 20 minutes to complete the application.”

Other experts agree that online is the best way to apply for Social Security. “I am a firm believer in applying online for benefits,” says Kurt Czarnowski, a principal with Czarnowski Consulting.

Prefer to work with a real live human? You can, of course, still apply in person. But if you choose this route, don’t walk into your local office cold. “You might face a one- or two-hour wait, or worse,” says Landis. Instead, call 1-800-772-1213 to set up an appointment, for either a phone or in-office claim. Of note, the Social Security Administration (SSA) generally doesn’t publish the phone numbers of their local offices. You can find your local office and its business hours at https://secure.ssa.gov/ICON/main.jsp.

Consider this warning from Brewton if you do decide to file in person: “Our experience with our own clients has been that the (SSA) agents have attempted to get them to do something different than the client wanted.”

Word to the wise. The SSA’s phones are staffed from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in whatever time zone you’re in. “But they’re swamped mid-day, from about 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” says Landis. “Instead, call near either end of the day, like 8 a.m. or 5 p.m. If the recording says it will be a long wait, just hang up and call back at a better time.”

When calling Uncle Sam, Landis recommends always having a magazine or other diversion at hand in case you have to wait.

The two “gotcha” questions. When you file, there are two questions that seem to trip people up, according to Brewton. One: “If you are eligible for both a retirement benefit and a spouse’s benefit, do you want to delay receipt of retirement benefit?” And two: “When do you want benefits to begin?”

So many consumers are confused by the first question, says Brewton. “Some…

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