You may think that getting Social Security benefits is as simple as turning 67. But there's more to it than that. Not everyone is eligible for benefits, there's paperwork involved, and your retirement age depends on the year you were born.
When You Are Eligible for Social Security
The money taken out of your paycheck for Social Security benefits is earning credits for the future. Working longer means more credits; retiring early means less. You can begin applying for benefits if you are 61 years 9 months old and want to begin the coverage in the next four months, but keep in mind these benefits will be permanently reduced because of your early retirement. The earliest you can receive Social Security benefits is age 62. Your full retirement age depends on when you were born. If you were born before 1943 you've already reached it. Born between 1943 and 1954, your retirement age is 66. From 1955 to 1960 your retirement age advances two months each year. From 1960 on, your retirement age is 67.
What You Need When Applying for Benefits
You should submit your documents to your local Social Security office a few months before you will receive benefits. The local office is in the phone book, or you can call (800) 772-1213.
You will need your Social Security card, your birth certificate (or proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status if not born in the U.S.), military discharge papers if you had military service before 1968, your last W-2 form, and your bank information. All documents must be originals or certified copies. The local Social Security office can help you get these documents if you do not have them. If your spouse or children are also applying for benefits, they will need their birth certificates and Social Security card. Your spouse will need a marriage certificate.
Who Is Covered
Benefits can cover a widow, spouse, a former spouse or children, depending on the circumstances. A widow or widower can collect spousal benefits at age 60, or 50 if disabled. A spouse can receive as much as half the retired worker's benefits even without enough credits for her own benefits, without affecting the retired worker's benefits. A spouse can collect benefits at age 62, earlier if she is taking care of the retiree's child who is under 16 or disabled. A former spouse can receive the same benefits as a current spouse if the marriage lasted longer than 10 years. Children can receive benefits if they have not graduated from high school or are disabled.
Social Security and Employment
You can collect benefits if you are still working, but if you are working, it does not make sense to begin collecting benefits early; you may even want to wait past your full retirement age if you keep working. You can be eligible to receive up to $800 a month in benefits if you are still working and under the age of retirement, but this will affect your benefits permanently. Once you reach the full retirement age, the government will recalculate your previous earnings and benefits and give full credit only for months you did not receive benefits.
If you do delay your benefits past your full retirement age, you must still apply for Medicare at the age of 65. It will cost more the longer you wait.
Suzanne Hodgson is a graduate of Penn State University, receiving Bachelor of Arts degrees in journalism and integrative art. She works at a marketing firm and has previously served as the photographer and journalist for the "Kennebunk Post," a weekly paper in southern Maine.