There are some basic facts about when and how Social Security checks are due and delivered that confuse many people. To help you understand, here are three rules about getting Social Security checks that everyone needs to know.
No. 1: Social Security benefits are paid one month behind. In other words, the benefit payment for May will be sent to you in June.
No. 2: For most people, your Social Security benefit arrives in your bank account on the second, third, or fourth Wednesday of each month. Although, some people, mostly old-timers, get their check on the third of each month.
No. 3: Social Security benefits are not prorated. As you will learn, this is good news while you are alive. But it can be bad news for your survivors after you die.
The rest of this column will explain these rules.
So, the first rule is pretty cut and dried. Some may wonder why checks are sent one month late. In a nutshell, the law says you must meet all the eligibility requirements for an entire month in order to get a Social Security check for that month. In other words, the government must wait until the month is over before it knows for sure that you are due benefits for that month.
One other point about this rule: When the Social Security retirement application asks you which month you want your benefits to start, don’t worry about the month you will actually be paid. Just put down the eligibility month. For example, if you want benefits to start at age 65, and you are 65 in May 2021, indicate May as your starting month—not June, even though that is when you will actually be paid.
The second rule takes a little more explanation. For decades, all Social Security benefits were paid on the third of each month. But as the number of Social Security beneficiaries grew, Social Security officials noted that this once-a-month payment schedule was putting a huge workload on their field offices and call centers at the beginning of each month. So, they decided to stagger Social Security payment dates on each of three Wednesdays throughout the month.
- If you were born on the first through 10th of the month, you will get your Social Security check on the second Wednesday of each month.
- If you were born on the 11th through 20th of the month, you will get your Social Security check on the third Wednesday of the month.
- If you were born on the 21st through 31st of the month, you will get your Social Security check on the fourth Wednesday of each month.
Having said that, some people (mostly people who were already getting benefits before the staggered delivery schedule went into effect) still get their benefits delivered on the third of each month. And for reasons I haven’t been able to figure out, some members of a married couple will get his or her benefits on the Wednesday delivery date that applies to the other spouse.
And as I hinted earlier, when it comes to the third rule, the proration of Social Security checks, it is generally good news on the front end of your Social Security experience but bad news on the back end. For example, let’s say Mary was born on Aug. 28, 1955, and wants her benefits to begin at her full retirement age of 66 and 2 months—or Oct. 28, 2021. She will get a Social Security check for the entire month of October (payable in November), even though she was 66 and 2 months for only two days of the month.
On the other hand, let’s say John dies on Oct. 28, 2021, at age 85. The law says John must be alive the entire month to get a benefit for that month. So, John’s wife or family won’t be due the proceeds of his October check, payable in November. However, if his wife is eligible for widows benefits, she will get those benefits for the entire month of October, even though she was a widow for only two days of the month.
And now that you have a better understanding of these basic rules, I’m going to throw in one little twist that I’ve discussed many times in other columns. And that is the quirky little “born on the first of the month” rule.
There is an odd common law (not a Social Security law) that says you legally attain your age on the day before your actual birthday. For example, I was born on June 22, 1949, meaning I will turn 72 on June 22, 2021. But I actually legally attain age 72 on June 21, 2021. This little rule is usually meaningless for most of us. But when it comes to Social Security eligibility, it’s full of meaning for people born on the first of the month.
Here is an example. Jane was born on May 1, 1955. She wants her Social Security benefits to start at her full retirement age. She will reach her full retirement age of 66 and 2 months on July 1, 2021. And normally, the first check she would be due is the July check, payable in August. But this quirky common law says she actually attains her full retirement age of 66 and 2 months on June 30, 2021. So, she gets a full retirement age Social Security check for June (payable in July), even though her real birthday isn’t until July.
This same odd common law can help another subset of potential Social Security beneficiaries—people born on the second day of the month who start their benefits at age 62. And it has to do with another odd law that says you must be 62 every day of the month before you can get your first Social Security check. (This rule only applies to people starting their benefits at age 62.) The best way to explain this is with another example.
Jack was born on May 2, 1959, meaning he turns 62 on May 2, 2021. And he wants his benefits to start at age 62. Because of that “must be 62 for every day of the month” rule, he figures he must wait until June (the first month he is 62 for the entire month) to start his benefits. And the June check is payable in July.
But that quirky common law says Jack actually attains his 62nd birthday on May 1, 2021. So, he is legally age 62 for every day of the month of May, meaning his first Social Security check will be the May check, payable in June.
Tom Margenau worked for 32 years in a variety of positions for the Social Security Administration before retiring in 2005. He has served as the director of SSA’s public information office, the chief editor of more than 100 SSA publications, a deputy press officer and spokesman, and a speechwriter for the commissioner of Social Security. For 12 years, he also wrote Social Security columns for local newspapers, and recently published the book “Social Security: Simple and Smart.” If you have a Social Security question, contact him at email@example.com.