If you're ready to start collecting your retirement benefits or need to receive assistance due to a disability, you'll need to go through the Social Security application process, which can vary, depending on the type of benefits you need. After gathering the important documentation needed to complete the paperwork, you can fill out your application online, have a representative guide you over the phone or visit your nearby Social Security office. But before you start the application, you'll want to do some research to assess your eligibility, get benefit estimates, get a list of the documents you'll need and see the methods available for applying in your situation.
Understanding Social Security Benefits Programs
When considering Social Security programs you might be eligible for, keep in mind there are Social Security retirement, survivor and disability benefits as well as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. These differ based on eligibility requirements and the type of funding method.
For example, the Social Security retirement, survivor and disability programs require a certain number of work credits over the years and use your average lifetime earnings for calculating a benefit amount. These programs don't have limits for your assets or income to initially qualify. The money for these programs (and Medicare) comes through the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) taxes employees and employers pay on earnings. The FICA rate is 7.65 percent for both parties and accounts for Social Security and Medicare taxes.
SSI, on the other hand, doesn't get funding from your income tax withholdings and comes from general revenues instead, so your work record doesn't play a role in eligibility. This program, which is for people who are blind or disabled as well as some non-disabled elderly recipients, requires financial need and thus, has income and asset limits to qualify. The program also considers other people in your household, so their financial details affect your eligibility for benefits.
Read More: Social Security Basics
Assessing Eligibility and Benefit Estimates
To learn more about eligibility, you'll want to use the program-specific resources on the SSA website. For example, getting retirement benefits requires having acquired 40 work credits and being at least age 62. Getting Social Security disability insurance benefits requires having a severe condition on the approved list, not earning $1,310 or more monthly and having a sufficient number of work credits based on your age at the time of disability. Receiving SSI requires meeting the criteria of being aged, disabled or blind plus meeting income limits and resource limits ($2,000 for individuals, $3,000 for couples).
To see benefit estimates, you can use various calculators and charts on the SSA website. The retirement estimator can provide a potential Social Security award based on your work history and the age at which you'll retire. There's a detailed calculator you can use to estimate various benefits program amounts. While the other programs take work history into account so calculations can vary from person to person, SSI doesn't and has a 2021 maximum monthly award ranging from $794 for individuals to $1,191 for couples.
Deciding When to Apply
If you're applying for SSI or Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, you'll want to start the application process as soon as you're eligible for the program. If you're seeking survivors benefits, you'll want to contact the SSA promptly after a family member dies. Acting quickly can help prevent a delay in benefits in these cases since it can take several weeks for a result.
Deciding when to apply for retirement benefits, however, takes more consideration. First, the SSA doesn't let you apply before you're 61.75 years old, and they set a maximum limit of four months ahead of the start date. You'll also want to keep in mind that your benefit amount depends on your age as well.
Receiving benefits at the earliest age of 62 means getting 25 to 30 percent less than if you had waited until your full retirement age of 66 or 67. Holding off until you're up to 70, on the other hand, can get you an annual rate increase of 5.5 to 8 percent, depending on your birth year. Your benefits will not increase after age 70.
Choosing How to Apply
Whether you're seeking retirement, disability or spouse's benefits, you'll likely find it most convenient to complete the application process on the Social Security website. However, keep in mind that the SSA doesn't allow an online application for certain situations.
For example, you can't use the online method when you need to apply for survivors benefits or children's benefits. Further, you can't complete an SSI application online if you're 65 or older or when you need to apply for SSI benefits for a child.
If your situation doesn't allow for an online application, you have questions or you'd just prefer to get direct assistance from a representative along the way, you can either apply over the phone or visit the local Social Security office. Both these options tend to require that you make an appointment, so consider doing so as soon as possible to avoid an inconvenient wait.
Gathering Documents for the Application
Regardless of the application method you choose, you'll need to prepare with some key documents and information that the application paperwork will require. For example, you'll need important items like your Social Security number, birth certificate, latest tax or other income documents, and proof of your citizenship status as a minimum for any of these programs. The other documents needed will depend on the Social Security program for which you're applying.
For example, if you're seeking Social Security disability benefits, you'll need to provide a disability report and other items like medical records and documents showing any compensation you've already received for your disability. You'll need similar medical documents for SSI in most situations plus several documents showing your income, resources, work history and living arrangement. An SSI applicant may show their bank statements, records of assets like vehicles and homes and a document showing all the typical monthly expenses for the household.
Applying for benefits as a survivor requires additional documentation such as the deceased's death certificate along with your marriage certificate and any divorce decree if applicable. If you have a disability, you'll also have to submit the medical records and report like you would with the other programs.
Preparing for an Online Application
Before you can apply for any of the Social Security programs online, you'll need to visit the My Social Security website to create an account and finish the setup process. Not only will this website allow for the initial application, but it also lets you watch the application status, see personalized benefit estimates and make changes like setting up direct deposit for benefits or putting in a new address if you move.
When you click the button to sign up, you're prompted to either log in with an identity services provider partner account you already have or set up a Login.gov account. In either case, you can expect to provide identifying information, answer security questions and set up a way to get an access code that you'll use alongside your username and password.
You'll also receive a code after creating the account. Entering this code on the My Social Security website is needed to activate your account so you can apply online.
Completing the Online Application
Once you have your My Social Security account set up, you can visit the "Apply for Benefits" page on the SSA website to get started with an online application. You'll need to agree to some terms and conditions to see a page with buttons to either start or resume an application. You'll proceed by letting the SSA know you're applying for your own benefits and specifying that you have set up an account. You'll then be prompted to log in to My Social Security, enter the verification code sent to you and start filling out the application with details that will depend on the program.
The online application for any of the Social Security programs will ask questions about your identity, address, employment history, spouse and dependents, citizenship and military service status and health conditions. The application for disability insurance goes into more detail about how and when you became disabled or blind and how this has affected your ability to work, while the SSI application needs detailed information on your living arrangements, income, assets and monthly expenses. The application for survivors benefits will ask about your relationship with the deceased and the date of their death.
After you make it through all the questions and submit your online application, make note of the confirmation number the SSA gives you. You'll also get a list that shows all the documents the SSA will need you to provide as well as how to provide them and the details on what you can expect to happen next. For example, you may end up needing to have an interview for disability benefits.
Applying by Phone or in Person
For either the phone or in-person application methods, you'll want to start by calling 1-800-772-1213 on weekdays between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. You'll follow the prompts on the phone system to speak to an SSA representative who will ask for some basic information. They'll then likely have you schedule a time and date for a phone or in-person appointment at the nearest Social Security office.
When it comes time for your appointment, have your documents and information ready to complete the paperwork. If applying in person, you can provide the documents right there, while you'll likely be told to mail or possibly fax them or even drop them off at the local SSA office for a phone application. The representative will guide you on what to do next such as whether you'll need to attend a hearing for your case.
Monitoring Your Application Status
After you apply for Social Security by phone, online or in person, be sure to keep an eye on your application and promptly follow up with the SSA if they contact you. The SSA may need to request additional documents for your case, especially if you're seeking benefits due to a disability, or they might find that your application is incomplete and needs more details. They might also simply have questions for you during the process.
The easiest way to monitor your Social Security application 24/7 is to use the My Social Security website, which you can sign up for even if you used another method to apply for benefits. You'll find your application status shown there with important details like the filing date and location as well as any flags like an incomplete application. If your case requires a hearing, you'll also see the time and date on the portal. If you think there's an issue with your application, you can call 1-800-772-1213 to speak to an SSA representative about your case.
When the SSA has a result for you, expect a letter in the mail with details on approval or denial. If approved, you'll learn about your benefit amount and start date. If you're denied, you'll learn about the appeals process you can go through if you believe you're eligible for the program to which you applied.
- Social Security Administration: Ways to Apply
- IRS: Topic No. 751 Social Security and Medicare Withholding Rates
- Social Security Administration: Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI):
- Social Security Administration: Starting Your Retirement Benefits Early
- Social Security Administration: Delayed Retirement Credits
- Social Security Administration: What Documents Do You Need to Apply for Retirement Benefits?
- Social Security Administration: Form SSA-16 | Information You Need to Apply for Disability Benefits
- Social Security Administration: Understanding Supplemental Security Income Documents You May Need When You Apply -- 2021 Edition
- Social Security Administration: Form SSA-10 | Information You Need to Apply for Widow's, Widower's or Surviving Divorced Spouse's Benefits
- Social Security Administration: My Social Security
- Social Security Administration: Apply for Benefits
- Social Security Administration: Application for Retirement Insurance Benefits
- Social Security Administration: Application for Disability Insurance Benefits
- Social Security Administration: Application for Survivors Benefits
- Social Security Administration: Application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Social Security Administration: Check the Status of your Social Security Application
- Social Security Administration: Learn About Retirement Benefits
- Social Security Adminitration: How the Retirement Estimator Works
- Social Security Administration: SSI Federal Payment Amounts For 2021
- Social Security Administration: Social Security Detailed Calculator
Ashley Donohoe has written about business and technology topics since 2010. Having a Master of Business Administration degree, bookkeeping certification and experience running a small business and doing tax returns, she is knowledgeable about the tax issues individuals and businesses face. Other places featuring her business writing include Zacks, JobHero, LoveToKnow, Bizfluent, Chron and Study.com.