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Social Security Retirement Benefits Guide & Frequently Asked Retirement Questions

Social Security is one of the cornerstones of many retirement plans. In fact, it can provide up to 50% or more of retirement income for many Americans. Social Security is earned by contributions you make to your Social Security Account while you are in the workforce, and applies to most workers in the United States.

Social Security can be complex, and it comes in three flavors: Retirement Benefits, Disability Benefits, and Survivor Benefits. The purpose of this guide is to show you how you can qualify for Social Security Retirement Benefits, how to avoid reduced payments, and how you can actually increase your Social Security Benefits by waiting to begin drawing your retirement pay.

Social Security Retirement Benefits Guide

This guide will walk you through your Social Security Retirement Benefits and help you understand the following:

  • How to Register for Your Social Security Benefits Online
  • How to Read & Understand Your Social Security Statements
  • What Age You Should Take Social Security Benefits
  • How Divorce Impacts Social Security Benefits
  • The Myth that Social Security Will Go Bankrupt

How to Register for Social Security Benefits Online

Registering for your Social Security benefits when you retire may seem about as appealing as an anesthetic-free root canal. You may have images in your head of endless paperwork and headaches.

But the truth is, registration is surprising easy, particularly online. Here are the steps you will need to register for Social Security retirement benefits—and it shouldn’t take you more than 15 to 30 minutes:

1. Check Your Eligibility

Register for Social Security Benefits OnlineBefore you do anything else, you will want to double check that you are, indeed, eligible for benefits. You would hate to get all the way through the registration process before you discovered that fact. To keep that from happening, Social Security offers the Benefit Eligibility Screening Tool (BEST) to help you determine your eligibility status. This tool is anonymous, requiring neither your name nor your Social Security number.

2. Gather Personal Information and Paperwork

Before you sit down at the computer to complete the online form, find all of the pertinent documents you will need to complete the process. These documents include your birth certificate (or naturalization papers if you were not born in the United States), your Social Security card, W-2 or self-employment forms for the last year, U.S. military discharge records, and your most recent Social Security statement.

3. Log on to the Website

On the Social Security homepage, click on the hyperlink titled “Apply online for retirement benefits” located in the top left corner. On the next page, you will click on the button “Apply for Retirement.”

4. All About You

You will fill in information about yourself, including name, address, gender, date of birth, and Social Security number. The application will also prompt you to give your employer’s name and address, and your income for this year and last year. You will need to provide the dates of military service if applicable. Finally, the application will need information about your spouse (or spouses if you have been married more than once). You will need to give your spouse’s name, address, age, and Social Security number, and date of death if your spouse has pre-deceased you. Once you provide that information, you are taken to a page that attempts to verify your identity by asking questions about loans that you might have.

5. Earning history

Your most recent Social Security statement provides you with information about your earnings over your lifetime. The application asks for details about this information, but even if you do not have your statement, don’t worry. You can fill out the application without it and the Social Security Administration can help you fill in any omitted information when they process your form.

6. Verify Form Completion and E-Sign

Once you have completed your form, you will be asked to click on the “Sign Now” button, which serves as your electronic signature. Once you have completed the form, print it out and keep a copy for your records.

How to Read Your Social Security Statement

how to read your social security statementEvery year, the Social Security Administration issues you a statement, containing information about your earnings and your benefits. In previous years this statement was mailed to your home. The SSA now only publishes this in your online account. It’s a good idea to review this information, to ensure that it is correct, as well as to ensure that your identity hasn’t been stolen.

If you want to look at your Social Security statement online (and you should), you need to sign up for an account.

What to Look For on Your Social Security Statement

Once you have access to your Social Security statement, look at the information. Verify that your personal information is accurate. You’ll want to have inaccurate information corrected.

Also, look at your earnings history. If your earnings are too low for some years, you might not get the benefits you are entitled to. Your Social Security benefits, for you, or to your survivors should you die, are related to your earnings. If there has been a mistake related to under-reported earnings, you’ll need to fix that so that you have the proper benefits.

Be on the look out for earnings that are too high as well. In these cases, it could be an indication that someone has used your Social Security number to get a job. While it’s a nice thought that you will get all those extra benefits, the downside is that your identity has likely been stolen. Reporting the matter could lead to helping you lock down your credit file.

You can call the Social Security Administration at 1-800-772-1213 if you want to correct information on your Social Security statement. The sooner you fix mistakes on your statement, and in the records the government has, the better off you’ll be. It’s much better to resolve these issues now, before you actually need your Social Security benefits.

When Should You Receive Social Security Benefits?

One of the best ways to ensure that you have a good safety net during retirement is to maximize when you take Social Security benefits. The decision about when to take Social Security benefits depends on your financial situation, though. How much money you receive is based on how long you have been working (and paying into the system), as well as when you decide to start taking benefits.

The longer you work, and the longer you wait to begin taking benefits, the higher your monthly payments will be. However, if you have lost your job, and can’t find a new one, Social Security benefits might be necessary to help keep you afloat.

When are You Eligible for Social Security Benefits?

When should you take Social Security Benefits?First of all, you need to figure out when you are eligible for Social Security benefits. If you are disabled in some way, you can begin receiving Social Security benefits no matter your age. However, you will have to prove your disability. Your benefits will be considered Social Security disability benefits until you reach your full retirement age. At that point, your disability benefits are converted to retirement benefits.

Full Social Security Retirement Age

Year of Birth *Full Retirement Age
1937 or earlier65
193865 and 2 months
193965 and 4 months
194065 and 6 months
194165 and 8 months
194265 and 10 months
195566 and 2 months
195666 and 4 months
195766 and 6 months
195866 and 8 months
195966 and 10 months
1960 and later67

If you aren’t disabled, the earliest age you can begin receiving Social Security benefits is age 62. However, it’s important that you understand that you won’t qualify for “full” benefits. If you start taking benefits before you reach what is considered the “full” retirement age, you end up with reduced benefits. Your full retirement age depends on when you were born. The Social Security Administration (SSA) offers a web site that can point you to your full retirement age. For people born after 1960, though, the retirement age is currently 67. You can find more information about how your benefits are reduced by consulting the benefits chart provided by the SSA.

Penalty for Taking Social Security Benefits Before Full Retirement Age

The previous table shows your full retirement age. You may be able to take Social Security Retirement Benefits before your full retirement age, starting at age 62. However, there may be penalties if you begin receiving benefits before your full retirement age. The following table shows the reduced benefit for taking benefits early. Note, you must be at least age 62 for the entire month before you begin drawing Social Security:

Year of Birth *1.Full (normal) Retirement AgeMonths between age 62 and full retirement age *2.The retirement benefit is reduced by *4.The spouse's benefit is reduced by *5.
1937 or earlier653620.00%25.00%
193865 and 2 months3820.83%25.83%
193965 and 4 months4021.67%26.67%
194065 and 6 months4222.50%27.50%
194165 and 8 months4423.33%28.33%
194265 and 10 months4624.17%29.17%
195566 and 2 months5025.83%30.83%
195666 and 4 months5226.67%31.67%
195766 and 6 months5427.50%32.50%
195866 and 8 months5628.33%33.33%
195966 and 10 months5829.17%34.17%
1960 and later676030.00%35.00%
  1. If you were born on January 1st, you should refer to the previous year.
  2. If you were born on the 1st of the month, we figure your benefit (and your full retirement age) as if your birthday was in the previous month. If you were born on January 1st, we figure your benefit (and your full retirement age) as if your birthday was in December of the previous year.
  3. You must be at least 62 for the entire month to receive benefits.
  4. Percentages are approximate due to rounding.
  5. The maximum benefit for the spouse is 50% of the benefit the worker would receive at full retirement age. The % reduction for the spouse should be applied after the automatic 50% reduction. Percentages are approximate due to rounding.

(table source).

Increase Social Security Retirement Benefits by Waiting to Draw Your Pay

You can also improve your monthly Social Security benefit by waiting longer to take your Social Security benefits. If you wait until you are beyond your full retirement age, you will receive an additional 8% for each year until you are 70. There is a double advantage to waiting as well, since if you keep working you can pay more into the system and increase your benefit that way. The higher your monthly benefit, the less you have to rely on your own next egg to cover your expenses.

Military Service Can Increase Your Social Security Benefits

You may be able to increase your Social Security Benefits if you had military service prior to 2001. Veterans who served between September 16, 1940, through December 31, 1956, did not have Social Security taxes automatically withheld from their military paychecks. However, the government will credit veterans with earnings of $160 for each month they served during those years.

Military service between 1957 and 2001 may also increase your Social Security Benefits. Here is how your military service impacts it:

  • Military Service between 1957 and 1967 you’ll receive extra credits when you apply for Social Security.
  • Military Service between 1968 and 2001 these credits have been added to your record.
  • Military Service after 2001 does not earn extra credits.

The following article explains in more detail how your military service impacts your Social Security Benefits.

Can You Take Social Security Benefits While Working?

It is possible to start receiving Social Security benefits while you are working. However, you might be subject to a cap. As you reach a certain amount of benefits while you have a job, you have to give back half of every dollar you receive in benefits — and this rule applies even after full retirement age. It is rarely worth it to start taking your Social Security benefits while you are working. However, if you have had your hours cut to part-time, and you are at least 62, you might need some benefits to help you through the wage reduction.

Also, remember that you can start taking money penalty-free from your tax-advantaged retirement account at age 59 1/2. That means that you might be able to supplement with those benefits until you reach full retirement age. Before you make a decision about drawing your Social Security benefits, consider your financial situation, and your cash flow. Only take Social Security benefits before your full retirement age if you have to.

Divorce and Social Security Benefits

When a marriage dissolves, it can leave one or both spouses scrambling to find their financial footing, particularly when it comes to retirement planning. Retirement can be a particularly difficult prospect for a divorcing spouse who stayed home with children or otherwise sacrificed a career during the marriage.

However, what many divorcées may not realize is that they can still be eligible for their spouse’s higher Social Security benefits even after the marriage has ended. Here is what you need to know about your spousal Social Security rights, whether or not you are still married:

Qualifications for Benefits After Divorce

divorce social security benefitsIn order to qualify for spousal benefits, you need to meet four requirements:

  • Your marriage must have lasted at least 10 years.
  • You must personally not have remarried, although it does not matter if your ex-spouse has. In fact, the spousal benefits you collect will not affect the benefits your ex or his/her new spouse are entitled to.
  • You must have reached age 62 or older.
  • Your benefits based upon your own earnings must be lower than the benefits you would collect based upon your former spouse’s earnings.

If you have remarried, it is possible to collect benefits based on your former spouse’s earning record if your second marriage ends in death, divorce, or annulment.

When You Can Begin Collecting

Suppose you need financial help as of age 62, but you know that your ex-spouse has no plans to retire in the next decade. It is still possible for you to collect retirement benefits based on his earnings, even if he is still working. As long as your ex-spouse would qualify for benefits, you can begin collecting against his earnings as of your 62nd birthday.

There is only one caveat to this rule: you must have been divorced at least two years before you can collect benefits if your ex-spouse has not yet applied for retirement benefits himself.

In addition, it is possible for you to collect spousal benefits while putting off receiving your own retirement benefits, which you never lose the right to. David McPherson of ABC News recommends this strategy as a method to increase your own benefits over time:

“You…can begin by collecting Social Security through a divorced spouse benefit first and delay receiving your own retirement benefits until a later date. This could mean a higher benefit for you down the road by qualifying for delayed retirement credits that accumulate up until age 70.”

Survivor Benefits

One last right to spousal benefits that you retain even through a divorce is your eligibility for survivor benefits if your ex-spouse dies. In the case of survivor benefits, you are eligible to receive them once you have reached age 60 (or 50, if you are disabled). You may also be eligible prior to that if you still have a child living at home.

Social Security and Fairness

Basically, individuals are eligible for the highest benefit to which they are entitled, which includes benefits accrued by a spouse during a long-term marriage. Social Security recognizes that not all of the contributions to a working marriage are financial. This means that spouses who give up working outside the home or working full time for the sake of a marriage that eventually ends will not find themselves up a creek in retirement.

Will Social Security Go Bankrupt?

The Social-Security-is-going-bankrupt claim is one that we are hearing often these days. There’s a grain of truth to it – which will delve into in a bit – but most of it is sensationalist drivel. There is no question that it makes for great attention grabbing headlines, and probably plays well into the hands of the retirement planning industry.

But a lot of people are worrying needlessly about this potential outcome. What are the myths – what are the facts? And more important, how can we prepare for whatever will come about?

The Popular Reduced Social Security Assumptions

Social Security is Bankrupt MythAt the extreme, a Social Security nuclear nightmare is set to unfold at an unknown point in the future. The checks will stop going out each month, then the White House, Congress, and the Social Security Administration will be forced to finally come out and publicly admit that the system is bankrupt.

The elderly will be kicked out of their homes to live on the streets, or – if they’re lucky – with their children. They’ll be wearing 30 year old, threadbare clothing, and dinner will be a can of pet food.

That scenario is the product of a mix of political gamesmanship and media sensationalism. And it works extremely well for all the players in the game. For example, in order for a politician to claim that he is “working tirelessly to save Social Security for our beloved elderly Americans”, he first needs to establish the fact that someone else is looking to take it away. It gets votes, and it gets people reading articles and watching TV programs. Mission accomplished!

If you are buying into this, you’re most likely wasting energy and valuable time.

Why that’s not likely to happen

A big part of the reason why Social-Security-is-going-bankrupt is so popular is the fact that so many people rely upon it so heavily. America’s senior citizens count on Social Security to provide 39% of their total income, and the majority of retirees rely on it to provide more than half their income. Talk of the system becoming history creates powerful negative emotions.

But that dependence on the system is also precisely why it can’t go away. Not only do so many people count on Social Security now, but most of us hope and expect to have it in the future. That represents a political force that will make “bankruptcy” extremely unlikely.

Another important fact is that Social Security is an integral part of the US economic and financial systems. It is in fact one of the foundational systems in the country. The end of Social Security would not just imperil retirees, but would also hurt millions of businesses that would suddenly lose tens of millions of customers who would then be too poor to buy their products and services. And that’s not to mention the banks, would would no longer have reason to expect repayment on loans made to anyone over the age of 62.

But beyond political and economic considerations, the US government has too many options to allowing Social Security to go bankrupt. Just as it is doing now, the government can either raise taxes, or borrow or print the money needed to keep Social Security solvent. The bankruptcy of Social Security is impossible absent the complete collapse of the US government.

Just based on history, that’s not impossible either, but it’s far less likely.

A more likely outcome

Taking the nightmare scenario off the table, there is no question that Social Security has its problems. There are now too many people collecting benefits relative to workers paying taxes into the system. That will have to be addressed in some fashion going forward.

Three scenarios that we should fully expect to come about are:

  1. An increase in the retirement age,
  2. A reduction in benefits, or
  3. Some combination of both.

We’re actually already seeing the implementation of an increase in the full retirement age from 65 to 67 for people born after World War II. It is entirely possible that the age will be increased further, even up to age 70. And it is not unlikely that early retirement – currently age 62 – will also be increased.

Reduction in benefits can come about simply by the Social Security Administration adjusting its benefit calculation. Since the calculation is only loosely available to the public, gradual adjustments would be fairly easy to accomplish. Most likely, we’ll see a combination of an increase in the retirement age, as well as reductions in benefits.

That combination – and not the complete bankruptcy of Social Security – is the scenario that we should all be preparing for.

How to Prepare for Reduced Social Security Retirement Benefits

Just being aware that Social Security is likely to be less generous by the time we retire should be a sufficient wake-up call for us to make other plans. We can continue to plan to have Social Security as one source of income in retirement, but it is unquestionable that we need to be prepared to rely upon it far less than current retirees do.

How can we begin preparing for that now?

Live on less, save more. This is Personal Finance 101 – live on less, save more, and invest the difference. It’s the single best strategy for preparing for retirement matter what happens with Social Security. By living beneath your means, you not only prepare yourself for a more frugal retirement, but you also enable yourself to save more money for that retirement.

Delay collecting Social Security benefits. With regard to Social Security itself, you can increase your monthly benefit by up to 8% each year that you delay retirement. If your normal retirement age is 67, and you delay collecting benefits until age 70, you can increase your monthly benefit by as much as 24%.

Maximize your retirement contributions. The single most important preparation for lower Social Security benefits is increasing the size of your retirement portfolio. There are different ways that you can do this. Most people are completely unaware that you can contribute as much as $54,000 per year to various retirement plans. Among the options are maximizing your 401(k) contributions at work, opening an IRA or Roth IRA, or even starting a side business with its own dedicated retirement plan.

Get out of debt. You should plan to enter retirement in a debt-free position. By paying off debts, you also eliminate monthly payments, and that lowers your cost of living.

The following writers contributed to this guide: Kevin Mercadante, Emily Guy Birken, and Miranda Marquit.

Photo credit: Stock Images, and DonkeyHotey


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Social Security Retirement Benefits Guide & Frequently Asked Retirement Questions


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