Social Security promises a lifelong payout of retirement benefits based on your earnings record. Yet, Social Security checks don’t magically start to appear at your doorstep as soon as you retire. In fact, it can take some work to figure out exactly how Social Security works and what you have to do to get your first check. Here’s a quick step-by-step guide so you’ll have the tools you need to initiate your Social Security retirement payments.
Step 1: Determine Your Eligibility
You don’t automatically qualify for Social Security just because you retire. First, you’ll need to be in the proper age range. You can claim Social Security retirement benefits as early as age 62 or as late as age 70. Full retirement age, for those born in 1960 or later, is age 67. If you claim benefits before your full retirement age, your monthly payout will be permanently reduced, by as much as 35% if you claim at age 62. If you wait until after your full retirement age, your monthly benefits will increase by 8% per year, if you were born in 1943 or later.
In addition to the age requirement, you’ll need to qualify for Social Security based on your income. The Social Security Administration requires 40 “quarters of coverage” for you to qualify for retirement benefits. The amount you need to earn to qualify for one quarter of coverage varies over time based on inflation. In 2022, the amount of earnings needed for one quarter of coverage is $1,510.
Step 2: Prepare Your Documentation
To claim your first Social Security check, you’ll have to prove you qualify and present that information to the Social Security Administration. You’ll also need to provide additional financial and identifying information. According to the SSA, you should prepare these documents before you apply for your first Social Security check:
- Your Social Security number
- Your date and location of marriage, including for previous marriages
- U.S. military service dates and branches, if applicable
- The names and dates of your employers for the past two years
- If self-employed, your type of business and self-employment income
- Bank information for where you want your checks directly deposited
- Any information about family members who may be entitled to benefits based on your Social Security record
You may need to provide additional information, such as your most recent W-2s or tax return, proof of your age (such as a birth certificate), a copy of your military service papers if you served before 1968, and proof of citizenship if you were not born in the United States.
Step 3: Apply Online at the Social Security Administration Website
The Social Security Administration prefers if you file for your benefits online. Generally, you may also choose to visit an SSA office, but they are all currently closed. You may still call the SSA for assistance. You can apply up to four months before you want to begin your Social Security benefits.
The steps to complete an online application with the SSA are relatively straightforward:
- Go to the “Apply for Benefits” page on the SSA website here.
- Read and agree to the Terms of Service, then click “Next.”
- Review the “Getting Ready” section so that you’re prepared to continue.
- Click on “Start a New Application.”
- Identify yourself according to the questions on the application.
- Either sign into or create a new mySocialSecurity account.
- Complete the application.
You can save your application if you’re not able to complete it all at one time. When you’ve finished, you’ll be asked to electronically sign the application.
Step 4: Be Ready To Provide Any Follow-Up Information
Once you’ve applied, the SSA will review your answers. If any part of your application is incomplete or needs clarification, the SSA will contact you directly, so be on the lookout for any additional requests. Failure to promptly reply could result in the rejection of your application.
Step 5: Understand When Social Security Retirement Benefits Are Paid
If everything checks out and the SSA determines you’re eligible for payments, your first check will be on its way shortly. The exact timing of your payout depends on when you applied and when you’re due your payments. For example, if you applied four months before you turned 62, you’ll have to wait until you reach the minimum retirement age before your payouts will begin. After that, your payments will be made in the month after they are due. For example, if you have a payment due to you in December, it will be paid to you in January.
The specific date of your payment will depend on your date of birth, as follows:
- Birth date on the 1st through 10th of the month: payout on the 2nd Wednesday of every month
- Birth date on the 11th through 20th of the month: payout on the 3rd Wednesday of every month
- Birth date on the 21st through 31st of the month: payout on the 4th Wednesday of every month
Note that according to federal law, all Social Security payments must be made electronically. You can select one of two options when you complete your application: either direct deposit into your bank account or onto a Direct Express® Debit Mastercard®.
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