When and How to File for Social Security Benefits

By Tom Margenau
Tom Margenau
Tom Margenau
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.
December 31, 2021 Updated: December 31, 2021

Hundreds of thousands of people will be filing for Social Security benefits in 2022. So today, I’m going to write a column about when and how to file for Social Security benefits.

But first, let me clarify the “when to file” part. As I’ve said over and over again in this column, I am not a financial planner. So, I really can’t advise you about the best time to start your Social Security benefits. That’s a decision only you can make, perhaps after consulting a real financial planner.

I’m just an old retired Social Security guy. All I can do is explain Social Security rules to you to help you make that decision. (In my book “Social Security—Simple and Smart,” I have a whole chapter devoted to this topic, so you might want to check it out. You can order the book online at Amazon.com.)

So, whether you make that decision on your own or with the help of my book or a financial planner, once you decide the month you want your benefits to start, many of you still want to know how far in advance you should file for those benefits. And that is the “when to file” advice I am offering in this column.

Let me begin by pointing something out. Your Social Security eligibility date is always a month, not a day. For example, let’s say you were born on Jan. 28, 1956, and you want your benefits to start at your full retirement age. The full retirement age for people born in 1956 is 66 and 4 months. So, you will reach full retirement age on May 28, 2022. But the day you reach FRA isn’t really an issue. It’s the month that is key. In other words, your eligibility date isn’t May 28, 2022. It’s just May 2022.

The Social Security Administration recommends that you file three months before your eligibility month. So, if you wanted your benefits to start in May, you could start the ball rolling sometime in February 2022.

I used to advise people that there really was no need to rush because most Social Security retirement claims are very simple and the SSA processed them in literally a matter of days. So, in the past, I would have told people whose eligibility date is May that they could even wait until April if they wanted and there would be a very good chance their first check would show up on time. But the pandemic seems to have messed things up at the SSA. I’ve heard from so many readers who report to me about delays in either getting through to the SSA in the first place or in getting their benefits started. So, I guess my motto for the time being is this: Better safe than sorry. So, file your Social Security claim three months before your first eligibility month.

But don’t let me scare you. Once you contact the SSA, you’ve established what they call a “protective filing date” and your rights to benefits are guaranteed from that month forward. For example, let’s say you wanted your benefits to start in January 2022. But for whatever reason, you didn’t get around to filing your claim until Jan. 25, 2022. Even though your claim might not finish processing until sometime in February (or possibly even March in these COVID-19-troubled times), you will be paid back to January.

That’s the “when to file” message. About three months ahead of time would be ideal. So now let’s tackle the “how to file” issue.

Probably 90 percent of us have rather straightforward Social Security claims. That means you are just filing for your own Social Security benefits. In that case, I strongly recommend you file online at SocialSecurity.gov. It’s simple and easy. I did so a few years back and it probably took me all of a half-hour to finish the process. Check the website yourself and see how easy it is.

But if you have a scenario that you think might be complicated (like trying to get a combination of retirement and spousal benefits), then you should probably do that in person. Call the SSA at 800-772-1213 to set up a phone interview. (According to the SSA’s website, in-office appointments to file Social Security claims are not being offered at this time.)

And if you are filing for widow’s benefits, that must be done by phone. Claims for widow’s benefits cannot be done online. That’s because there may be filing options a widow has that are more easily explained by talking to someone in person rather than online.

What documents do you need to file for Social Security benefits? It depends on the kind of benefit you are trying to get. Think of it this way: You usually have to provide some kind of evidence to support your eligibility for such benefits. For example, if it’s a retirement claim, you need to prove you are old enough to qualify. To do that, you need a birth certificate. If you are filing for spousal benefits, you need to not only prove your age, but you also need to show you are married to the person on whose Social Security record you are applying. So that would be a marriage certificate. If you are a divorced spouse, you’d also need to provide your divorce papers. If you want to apply for widow’s benefits, in addition to proving your age and marriage, you also need a death certificate. In all cases, SSA wants to see original copies of these documents, or copies certified by the record issuer.

One document you don’t need is your Social Security card. I hear from panicky people all the time who tell me they are about to file for Social Security benefits, and they can’t find their SSN card. I tell them to relax. You do not need the card when you sign up for Social Security.

And speaking of Social Security numbers, many divorced women tell me they are pretty sure they might be due benefits on an ex-spouse’s Social Security record. But they don’t have the guy’s Social Security number and they are worried they won’t get the benefits without the number. In these cases, the SSA will be able to find the ex’s SSN. They might need some identifying information from you (like his name, date, and place of birth, etc.), but you should be able to provide them with that.

Tom Margenau
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.