How Social Security works when you file for benefits

When you plan for retirement, I talk a lot about Social Security rules and strategies, such as when to claim benefits, how to coordinate spousal and survivor benefits, and how continued earnings (or lack thereof) may affect future benefits. This is all good. But once you have considered your options and decide on your strategy and approach, you want to know more about the nitty-gritty mechanics of how to apply for benefits, what paperwork might be needed, and when you can expect your first check.

First let me say that for a huge government bureaucracy, Social Security works extremely well. Every month its automated system kicks out about $82 billion in checks (actually, direct deposits) to 67 million people, some of whom depend on Social Security as their only source of income. Mistakes are rare, and, as government agencies go, administrative costs are low—just 0.7% of total expenditures. Once a person gets set up on Social Security, you rarely have to think about it after that. The money keeps rolling in until the day you die.

Getting set up in the first place may be a bit tricky depending on the strategy. And life has a way of disrupting the status quo, such as when a spouse dies, a person gets married or divorced, or even just moves to a different location. Then some form of interaction with the Social Security Administration (SSA) will be needed. People dread having to call SSA with a question, fearing long wait times and wrong answers, which sometimes happen. Here are some things to know to make your experience with SSA smooth and trouble-free.

Filing an application for benefits

Hands down, the best way to apply for Social Security benefits is online. The application is easy and straightforward. Here’s a checklist of items that will be needed. If you start the application and can’t finish it in one sitting, you can save it and come back to it later. It is possible to apply up to three months before you want benefits to begin, but one month prior is really sufficient. The application is usually processed in two to three weeks.

Prior to filling out the application you will need to open a my Social Security account, which you already should have done. This is also a straightforward process, but you may have trouble with the identity questions which are pulled from your credit file (usually recommend you get one of your free credit reports from https://www.annualcreditreport.com/index.action so you can answer the questions correctly and not get locked out of your Social Security account access online – a real pain to get it unlocked, so don’t try to “wing it“). These are questions relating to your mortgage payment or where you’ve lived in the past. If you have frozen your credit file you will need to unfreeze it to set up the my Social Security account. Once the account is set up you can place the freeze back on the file and may access the Social Security account with the freeze in place.

Most people will have no trouble with the benefit application. In addition to basic identifying information and family information, it asks for employer information if you are still working. The application also asks if you ever worked in a non-Social Security covered job or if you ever worked outside the United States. This is how SSA knows to apply the WEP or GPO or totalization of benefits with other countries.

How to approach multi-step plans that you have between couples’ benefits.

SSA sometimes gets mixed up if you lay out multi-step claiming scenarios. When you are interacting with SSA it’s usually better to implement these scenarios one step at a time and not even talk about future plans.

Selecting the start date

The application asks when you want benefits to begin—and why. This may seem very straightforward, but some people may be confused when they see that they can select a date as much as six months earlier. For example, when Elaine (see attribution below) applied for her benefit in May 2016, the month before she turned 70, the application offered to start her benefit anywhere from November 2015 to September 2016. She chose June 2016 (her birth month) in order to maximize her delayed credits.

You need to understand that if you select the earlier date, your permanent benefit will be short six months of delayed credits. For a person over Full Retirement Age (FRA) it’s always possible to select a start date six months prior (or back to FRA if shorter) but remember that the benefit will be calculated as of that date and will result in a lower benefit going forward. An exception to this is spousal or survivor benefits because they max out at FRA. Let’s say Susie’s husband died six months ago and she never got around to applying for her survivor benefit. Susie is 68. Because she is over FRA and was entitled to benefits for the past six months, she may be paid those benefits in a lump sum and this would not affect her benefit going forward; she will get the same amount whether or not she accepts the retroactive benefits.

When spouses are applying at the same time and one is taking a spousal benefit, I recommend that the worker spouse (that is, the spouse on whose record the spousal benefits are being paid) file first; once that application is processed the other spouse can file for the spousal benefit. They can both choose the same start date even though they are filing at different times. Or they might choose different start dates as long as eligibility exists on the chosen start date. The point is, make it a two step process so the first application is completed before starting the second application.

In addition to filing online, it’s possible to apply by phone (800-772-1213) or in person at a local office. If filing at a local office, it’s best to call the 800 number to make an appointment.

Survivor benefits must be applied for in person.

Applications are usually followed up by telephone by an SSA worker. They may request additional documentation to confirm your identity and your entitlement to benefits. You should expect this – it’s not an identity theft attempt since you initiated the action (that’s when you did nothing and you get those calls).

Once the application is processed and benefits are set to start, you’ll receive an award letter telling you the amount of the benefit and any reductions such as for Medicare premiums or tax withholding. It’s a good idea to show your award letter(s) to your adviser so that can be incorporated properly into your plan.

When benefits are paid

Social Security benefits are paid one month in arrears. The payment date is based on the day of the month the “worker” (i.e., the person on whose record the benefit is being paid) was born. See this calendar of benefit payments.

When benefits stop

The most common reason for benefits to stop is death. You have to be alive for the full month in order to be entitled to a check for that month. In other words, in order for the March benefit to be paid in April, the person would have to be alive for the whole month of March. If they die during the month of March, they are not entitled to that March check. Sometimes, when a death occurs late in the month or is not reported until late in the month, the check will go out anyway. In these cases SSA will ask for the money back. It’s always unfortunate when a grieving widow or other family member has to pay money back to SSA, but those are the rules. See more below.

Other reasons for benefits to stop might be:

  • a minor attains age 18—his or her dependent benefit would stop
  • a child turns 16—a parent’s child-in-care benefit would stop
  • a divorced person remarries (at any age)—their divorced-spouse benefit would stop
  • a divorced person remarries before age 60—their divorced-spouse survivor benefit would stop (this would apply to a disabled person only, since survivor benefits do not start until age 60 unless disabled)
  • a person switches to a different benefit, such as:
    • a person receiving spousal benefits turns 70 and switches to their own benefit; the spousal benefit stops
    • the spouse of a person receiving spousal benefits dies and the widow switches to the survivor benefit; the spousal benefit stops
    • a widow or divorced person receiving survivor benefits switches to her own retirement benefit; the survivor benefit stops
    • a widow or divorced person receiving her own benefit switches to her survivor benefit; her own benefit stops

When there’s a benefit switch SSA should work it out so there is no interruption in benefits. For example, if a benefit stops in March so that the April payment is not made, and if the cessation of that benefit creates entitlement to a new benefit, such as when a spouse dies and the widow steps up to her survivor benefit, the new benefit should pick up where the old one left off, starting in March and paid in April.

Some Social Security offices are better than others because of the people working there. Doing as much as you can online bypasses long lines. Making an appointment also helps if you need to go into an office. Seeing what documents you’ll need will save you multiple trips by being prepared in the first place.

Original article for an adviser newsletter by Elaine Floyd, CFP®, Director, Retirement and Life Planning, Horsesmouth, LLC, within which I’ve made edits for the public.

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