Social Security is a social insurance system that is meant to provide economic security for older Americans. The way the system works is that workers and employers pay Social Security taxes that are distributed to retired or disabled Americans and their families or survivors. Currently, about 163 million workers are paying into the system, and about 59 million are collecting monthly benefits.
In addition to retirement benefits, Social Security pays out disability, Medicare, spousal, survivor and child benefits, among others — and you can even apply for Social Security online. Here’s a look at how to apply for Social Security benefits.
How to Apply for Social Security Retirement Benefits
You can apply for Social Security benefits as soon as you reach 61 years and 9 months of age. To qualify for Social Security retirement benefits, you need to earn 40 credits. As of 2017, you earn one credit for every $1,300 you earn, up to four credits per year.
Applying for Social Security can be completed online at the Social Security website, on the phone at 800-772-1213, or in person at your local Social Security office. If you are overseas, you can contact the nearest Social Security office, embassy or consulate.
Whichever method you choose, you’ll need to provide the following information:
- Date and place of birth
- Social Security number
- Information about current or former spouses, including dates and places of your marriage(s), and dates of divorce or death, if applicable
- The account number and routing transit number of your bank or credit union
- Your citizenship status
- Whether you, or anyone on your behalf, has filed for Social Security in the past
- Whether you have used a different Social Security number
- The month you want your benefits to begin
At the time of your application, you might need to provide original documents to the Social Security office, such as your Social Security card, your original birth certificate and a copy of your W-2 and/or self-employment tax return from the previous year.
The process itself is simple, and can be completed in just a few steps:
- Gather documentation
- Contact the Social Security Administration office, either online, in-person or on the phone
- Request benefits
You can get your Social Security application status via the same method you used to apply.
How to Apply for SSI Benefits
Supplemental Security Income benefits are payable to disabled workers and their children with limited income and resources. You can also apply for SSI benefits if you’re over 65 and within certain income limitations. To apply, you’ll have to qualify via the Social Security Benefit Eligibility Screening Tool and provide necessary documents. The process is similar to applying for retirement benefits: Visit the Social Security Benefits website, call the SSA number or go to a Social Security office in person.
How to Apply for Medicare Benefits
Medicare is the country’s health insurance program for those age 65 and older, and other disabled workers. You can enroll in Medicare starting three months before your 65th birthday, either online at the SSA website, on the phone or in-person at a Social Security office. You can sign up for Medicare Part A, hospital insurance covering inpatient care, and Medicare Part B, medical insurance including outpatient care and services, often requiring premiums. If you choose not to enroll in Medicare Part B when you sign up for Medicare Part A, you’ll pay a higher premium later on when you do register.
How to Apply for Disability Benefits
As soon as you become disabled, the Social Security office asks you to apply either in-person, over the phone or via the website. Disability claims take longer to process than others, typically from three to five months. Providing relevant documentation at the time you apply for Social Security disability, such as medical information, can make the process move more rapidly.
How to Apply for Spousal Benefits
You might be entitled to retirement benefits under your spouse or former spouse’s account, even if you never worked under Social Security. The process is the same as if you are applying for your own Social Security retirement benefits. If you apply at the same time as your earning spouse, or if your spouse is already receiving benefits at the time of your application, the Social Security office will automatically check to see if you are entitled to any spousal benefits.
How to Apply for Survivor Benefits
To claim survivor benefits, you’ll need to notify Social Security of the worker’s death as soon as possible. If you’re already receiving spousal benefits, you generally won’t have to apply for survivor benefits, as they’ll automatically be converted after the death is reported. If you’re receiving your own retirement of disability benefits, you’ll need to apply either online, in-person or on the phone; you might be entitled to a higher benefit. As with other applications, the Social Security might request documentation, such as a death certificate, proof of citizenship, your birth certificate, your marriage certificate, tax returns and military records, if applicable.
How to Apply for Child Benefits
When you apply for Social Security retirement benefits, your children might also qualify for payments up to one-half the amount of your payments. To qualify, children must be:
- Under age 18, unless age 18 to 19 and a full-time student or deceased before age 22
The Social Security benefits application for children’s benefits is the same as applying for Social Security retirement benefits, but the Social Security office is likely to ask additional questions. For example, you’ll have to provide documentation on the child, such as a birth certificate, and if a disability is involved, you’ll have to complete an adult disability form.