For some reason, I have been getting an awful lot of questions lately from seniors who are fretting about exactly when to sign up for Social Security benefits.
I’m not talking about people who are undecided about when to start their benefit checks — I have written countless columns discussing that. I’m talking about people who have decided when they want their retirement benefits to start but are concerned about when to initiate the process. Other times, they are needlessly worried that they will make a big mistake and lose untold amounts in government benefits. Here are some examples of those questions.
Q: I will be 66 on Dec. 15, 2017. I want my Social Security checks to start at age 66. Some people have told me I need to file six months ahead of time. They said it takes that long for the government to do anything right. Others have told me I should wait until I am 66 before I file. What should I do?
A: Don’t believe those government-bashers who would have you believe it takes half a year to process your Social Security claim. In fact, the last statistics I saw show that the Social Security Administration processes the average retirement claim in about 20 days.
When I filed my own Social Security claim about five years ago, I did so on a Monday. By Friday of the same week, I had received a message from SSA that my claim was done. My wife’s claim took about 10 days. (By the way, we did all of this online.) And my neighbor said he filed his claim in person at our local Social Security office. It was processed in less than two weeks.
Even though SSA handles retirement claims rather expeditiously, they still advise filing two to three months ahead of time — just in case there is some kind of glitch. So because you are turning 66 in December and want your benefits to start then, I suggest starting the process in October. You can file online at www.socialsecurity.gov. Or you can call SSA at 800-772-1213 and set up an appointment to file a claim by phone or in person at your local Social Security office.
Q: I will be 66 on Aug. 25. That’s when I want my Social Security checks to start. Recently, I began the process of signing up for benefits online. But I was confused by a statement that was filled with a lot of legal language about the importance of using July 24 (the date I went online) as the “official date of my application.” I’m afraid that if I consent to using that date, they will send me a check for July. I don’t want benefits to start in July, which would involve taking a reduced retirement rate. I want my full 100 percent retirement benefits to start in August. Please help!
A: The official date of your application is only important for possible legal reasons later on. For example, it could be an issue in the very unlikely event that you later change your mind and decide you want benefits to start in July. So don’t worry about that “official date of application” business.
What you are much more concerned about is the month you want your benefits to begin. Somewhere on that online application it must ask something similar to this: “Please indicate the first month you want your Social Security benefits to start.” And as long as you answer that question with “August,” you will be fine.
Q: I will be 66 on Aug. 10. I know my first Social Security check won’t be due until September. The online application I tried filling out asked me what month I want my benefits to start. I didn’t want to answer “August” because I want my full benefits to start in September. I don’t want to get a check in August, which would be a reduced payment for July. I want my first check to come in September. Yet it didn’t seem to give me that option. What can I do?
A: Don’t worry about the month that your first check will be sent out. Worry only about the month you want to be the effective starting date of your benefits.
You are correct that Social Security benefits are sent one month in arrears. In other words, the Social Security check that comes in September is the benefit payment for the month of August.
But the application isn’t asking you which month you want your first check physically sent to you (or rather, sent to your bank account). It’s asking you which month you want your benefits to start. And for you, that would be August.
Q: I will be 66 on Aug. 29. I want my Social Security to begin at age 66. When I started the application process online, they asked when I want my checks to begin. I didn’t want to say August, because I want nothing reduced. As I am not 66 until near the end of the month, I figure I should say I want my checks to start in September.
A: Social Security checks are never prorated. So that’s good news for you. Even though you are 66 for only three days in August, you get a Social Security check for the whole month. So you should indicate August as the first month you want to start your Social Security benefits.
Q: I will be 70 in September. I am going to sign up for Social Security then. I want my full benefit, plus the 32 percent bonus I get for delaying my benefits. I’m really afraid that if I apply now, they might send me greatly reduced benefits. Should I wait until after my 70th birthday to file?
A: You should apply right now. Just make sure you indicate September as the month you want your check to start.
And even if there was a glitch and you got benefits paid back to August, it’s really no big deal. There is nothing that special about waiting until age 70 to start your benefits. Instead of getting 132 percent, you’d get about a 131.4 percent benefit rate if your checks started one month early. As I said: No big deal.