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What You Need to Apply for Social Security Retirement Benefits

Copyright © 2012 AARP. All rights reserved.

When you’re applying for retirement benefits, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will need a lot of information about your recent earnings, marital history, military background, whether you qualify for a federal pension, and possible eligibility of any family members for Social Security benefits, based on your own work record. You have a multiyear window to apply, based on your desired start time.

The SSA doesn’t go by the honor system. The documents you provide to back up your claim generally must be originals or official copies certified by the issuing agency — notarized photocopies won’t cut it. If you need to demonstrate birth, death, or marriage and you don’t have the proper certificates, the SSA may consider other evidence, such as a religious record of birth, a funeral director’s statement of death, or a marriage license.

The following sections cover the details you need to know whether you’re applying for retirement benefits based on your own work record or you are applying for auxiliary Social Security benefits based on the record of a retired worker.

Based on your own work record

When to file: Three months before you want benefits to begin. (You can’t apply more than three months before you turn 62 years old.)

Keep it handy: The SSA advises that all or some of the following information and documents will be needed to apply for retirement benefits (but don’t wait to apply just because you haven’t yet gathered all these materials):

  • Your Social Security number.

  • Your birth certificate (original or certified copy) or an acceptable religious record (such as a baptismal certificate) from earlier than age 5.

  • Your Form W-2 earnings statements (one from each of your employers) or your tax return (if you’re self-employed) from the prior year. Photocopies of these documents are acceptable.

  • Military discharge papers, such as DD Form 214 (Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty). Photocopies of these papers are acceptable.

  • Proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status if you were not born in the United States. Citizenship and naturalization papers must be original or certified by the office that provided them.

Back benefits: You may be eligible for up to six months of benefits prior to your application date if you’re at least six months older than your full retirement age.

Based on the work record of a current or former spouse

When to file: As early as three months before you want your benefits to begin. You can’t apply more than three months before you turn 62 years old. And the breadwinner must have filed for retirement benefits in order for you to apply for benefits yourself. (This requirement is waived for divorced spouses.)

Keep it handy: You’ll need to provide the same documents that someone applying for retirement benefits based on his or her own work record has to provide. In addition, if you’re still married to the breadwinner, the SSA may require proof of marriage in the form of a marriage certificate. (You may be able to provide other proof, such as a marriage license or sworn statement, if you don’t have a marriage certificate.) If you’re divorced from the breadwinner, you’ll be asked for the beginning and ending dates of the marriage and your final divorce decree.

Back benefits: You may be eligible for up to six months of benefits prior to your application date, but not for any month in which your spouse is younger than his or her full retirement age.

Benefits for children or grandchildren

When to file: You should file for benefits on behalf of dependent children or grandchildren at the time of the breadwinner’s retirement. Note: A parent or guardian may file for benefits on behalf of a child who is under 18; under certain circumstances, children 16 and older who are mentally competent may sign their own applications.

Keep it handy: You’ll need to provide the same documents that someone applying for retirement benefits based on his or her own work record has to provide. The child’s Social Security number also is required.

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