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Be Prepared

I got an email from a woman who had recently filed for widow’s benefits. She was writing to tell me that the process went very smoothly, and her benefits started within weeks of her application. She said one of the reasons things went so well is that she had done her homework and was prepared with all the information the Social Security Administration might need, including a death certificate and copies of her marriage papers.

I thought I’d help other readers (who haven’t yet filed for benefits) be prepared for their eventual encounter with the SSA. So today, I’m going to write a column about when and how to file for Social Security benefits.

First, let me clarify the “when to file” part. If you are filing for widow’s benefits (as was the lady who sent me the email), you will almost always do that soon after the death of your spouse. But most readers will be filing for retirement benefits. And as I’ve said repeatedly in this column, I am not a financial planner. So, I really can’t advise you about the best time to start your Social Security retirement benefits. That’s a decision only you can make, perhaps after consulting a real financial planner.

I’m just an old retired Social Security guy. All I can do is explain Social Security rules to you to help you make that decision. In my book, “Social Security: Simple and Smart,” I have a whole chapter devoted to this topic. So, you might want to check it out. You can order the book online at Amazon.com.

Whether you make that decision on your own or with the help of my book or a financial planner, once you decide the month you want your benefits to start, many of you still want to know how far in advance you should file for those benefits. And that is the “when to file” advice I am offering in this column.

Let me begin by pointing this out. Your Social Security eligibility date is always a month, not a day. For example, let’s say you were born Jan. 28, 1957, and you want your benefits to start at your full retirement age. The full retirement age for people born in 1957 is 66 and 6 months. So, you will reach full retirement age on July 28, 2023. But the day you reach FRA isn’t really an issue. It’s the month that is key. In other words, your eligibility date isn’t July 28, 2023. It’s just July 2023.

The Social Security Administration recommends that you file three months before your eligibility month. So, if you wanted your benefits to start in May, you could start the ball rolling sometime in February 2022.

I used to advise people that there really was no need to rush because most Social Security retirement claims are very simple and the SSA would process them in literally a matter of days. So, in the past, I would have told people whose eligibility date is July that they could even wait until June if they wanted and there would be a very good chance their first check would show up on time. But the fallout of the pandemic seems to have messed things up at the SSA. I’ve heard from so many readers who report to me about delays in either getting through to the SSA in the first place or in getting their benefits started. My motto for the time being is this: better safe than sorry. File your Social Security claim three months before your first eligibility month.

But don’t let me scare you. Once you contact the SSA, you’ve established what they call a “protective filing date” and your rights to benefits are guaranteed from that month forward. For example, let’s say you wanted your benefits to start in January 2023, but for whatever reason, you didn’t get around to filing your claim until January 25, 2023. Even though your claim might not finish processing until sometime in February or possibly even March, you will be paid back to January.

That’s the “when to file” message. About three months ahead of time would be ideal. Now let’s tackle the “how to file” issue.

Probably 90% of us have rather straightforward Social Security claims. That means you are just filing for your own Social Security benefits. In that case, I strongly recommend you file online at www.socialsecurity.gov. It’s simple and easy. I did so a few years back and it probably took me all of a half-hour to finish the process. Check the website yourself and see how easy it is.

If you do have a scenario that you think might be complicated (like trying to get a combination of retirement and spousal benefits), then you should probably do that in person. Call the SSA at 800-772-1213 to set up a phone or in-office interview.

And if you are filing for widow’s benefits, that must be done by phone or in person. Claims for widow’s benefits cannot be done online. That’s because there may be filing options a widow has that are more easily explained by talking to someone in person rather than dealing with a computer online.

What documents do you need to file for Social Security benefits? It depends on the kind of benefit you are trying to get. Think of it this way: you usually must provide some kind of evidence to support your eligibility for such benefits. For example, if it’s a retirement claim, you need to prove you are old enough to qualify. So, to do that, you need a birth certificate. If you are filing for spousal benefits, you need to prove not only your age, but you also need to show you are married to the person on whose Social Security record you are applying, most likely with a marriage certificate. If you are a divorced spouse, you’d also need to provide your divorce papers. If you want to apply for widow’s benefits, in addition to proving your age and marriage, you also need a death certificate. In all cases, SSA wants to see original copies of these documents, or copies certified by the record issuer.

One document you don’t need is your Social Security card. I hear from panicky people all the time who tell me they are about to file for Social Security benefits, and they can’t find their SSN card. I tell them to relax. You do not need the card when you sign up for Social Security.

And speaking of Social Security numbers, many divorced women tell me they are pretty sure they might be due benefits on an ex-spouse’s Social Security record, but they don’t have the guy’s Social Security number and they are worried they won’t get the benefits without the number. In these cases, the SSA will be able to find the ex’s SSN. They might need some identifying information from you (like his name, date and place of birth, etc.), but you should be able to provide them with that.

Tom Margenau

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has a book with all the answers. It’s called “Social Security — Simple and Smart.” You can find the book at www.creators.com/books or look for it on Amazon or other book outlets. To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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