Many retirees in the United States rely on Social Security retirement benefits to provide a substantial source of their income. Even though individuals may have other sources of retirement income, their Social Security benefit is a reliable source of support during retirement years. If you’re approaching retirement age, it’s important to learn how to apply for Social Security retirement benefits.

How to Apply for Social Security Retirement Benefits Online

  1. Visit the US Social Security Administration website (SSA.gov)
  2. Gather the Information You Need to Complete Your Social Security Benefits Application 
  3. Create a my Social Security Account
  4. Select “Apply for Retirement Benefits”
  5. Complete the Application for Social Security Retirement Benefits 
  6. Sign Your Application Electronically by Clicking “Submit Now”

Applying for Social Security retirement benefits online has numerous benefits. However, you may also apply for your SSA retirement income by calling the Social Security Administration at 1-800-772-1213. 

You may also apply for your monthly benefit in person by visiting your local Social Security office. If you have questions about spousal benefits, survivor benefits, early retirement, eligibility requirements, or minimum retirement age, you can also contact your local SSA office.

Applying for Social Security Retirement Online

The easiest and quickest way to apply for Social Security retirement benefits is to apply online. When applying online, you need the following information:

  • Date and place of birth
  • Marriage information, including your spouse’s name, date of birth, Social Security number, date of marriage, and place of marriage
  • Divorce information, including your ex-spouse’s name, date of birth, Social Security number, date of marriage, place of marriage, and date of divorce
  • Names and dates of birth of any children who are under 18 (19 if still in high school) or became disabled before age 22
  • Information about your military service, including the branch of the military and dates of service
  • Employment details for the current year and previous two years 
  • Self-employment details for the current year and previous two years
  • Direct deposit information for your bank account

How Social Security Retirement Benefits Work

Unless you have helped someone apply for Social Security retirement benefits, you may be unfamiliar with how the Social Security system works. Let’s look more closely at some of the common questions people have about Social Security retirement income. 

What are Retirement Benefits?

Almost all workers in the United States who are not self-employed are covered under the Social Security system. When you work and pay Social Security taxes, you earn work credits toward Social Security benefits. 

When you reach 62 years of age, you can apply for retirement income through the Social Security system. The US Social Security Administration pays the income in monthly payments to retirees. The amount you receive from Social Security depends on several factors, including your age when you apply for benefits and your lifetime earnings.

What is the Full Retirement Age for Social Security Benefits?

You can begin receiving Social Security retirement benefits as early as age 62. However, if you retire before your full retirement age, your monthly benefit is reduced. Therefore, there is a significant incentive to wait until normal retirement age, or as close to that age as possible, to begin drawing your full retirement benefits. 

Your full retirement age depends on when you were born. 

Year of BirthFull Retirement Age
1937 or before65 years
193865 years 2 months
193965 years 4 months
194065 years 6 months
194165 years 8 months
194265 years 10 months
1943-195465 years
195566 years 2 months
195666 years 4 months
195766 years 6 months
195866 years 8 months
195966 years 10 months
1960 and later67 years

How Social Security Retirement Benefits Are Calculated

Social Security benefits are based on how much you earned during the years you worked. You must have worked enough years to earn 40 work credits (about 10 years). Your monthly retirement benefit is based on the 35 years in which you earned the most income. 

The Social Security Administration applies a formula to calculate your primary insurance amount. The primary insurance amount is the monthly benefit you are entitled to receive when you reach full retirement age. 

Factors that can impact or change the amount a retiree receives in retirement benefits include:

  • Applying for Social Security benefits before reaching full retirement age, which reduces the amount you receive each month.
  • You delay retirement past your full retirement age, which increases the amount you receive each month.
  • You may receive cost of living benefit increases the year you become 62 years of age. Retirement benefits are adjusted each year to reflect increases, if any, in the cost of living as measured by the Consumer Price Index.
  • You worked for the government and you are entitled to receive a government pension benefit under a pension plan.

Planning for a normal retirement is important. Knowing how much you can expect to receive in Social Security income can be a significant factor used to develop a retirement plan. 

How to Calculate Social Security Retirement Benefits

The Social Security Administration has a retirement calculator available on its website. The retirement calculator cannot give you the actual Social Security benefit you will receive from the Social Security retirement system. Still, it can give you an estimate of the monthly retirement benefit you can expect to receive that you can use to plan for your retirement savings.

How to Increase Social Security Benefits After Retirement

If you wait until full retirement age to retire, you receive a larger monthly benefit. The reduction in monthly benefits is significant if you retire early. 

For example, if you retire at age 62, but your full retirement age is 67 years, your monthly benefits are reduced by thirty percent. The reduction decreases for each year you wait to retire. If you retire at age 63, the reduction is 25 percent. If you wait one more year to retire until you are 64 years old, the reduction is 20 percent. At age 65, you would lose just 13.3 percent of your benefit. If you wait until age 66, the reduction is 6.7 percent. 

Delayed Retirement – Can I retire and not collect Social Security?

If you continue working after your full retirement age, you continue to add to your Social Security earnings record. Therefore, you increase your lifetime earnings, which means higher benefits when you retire. 

The Social Security Administration increases your monthly benefits by a certain percentage for every year you work after your full retirement age. The increase stops when you reach 70 years of age. However, when someone reaches full retirement age at 65 years, he or she could increase the amount they receive in retirement benefits by working an additional five years.

Working While Receiving Benefits

You can continue to work after you begin receiving Social Security retirement income. If you do, you can increase the monthly benefits you receive. The US Social Security Administration reviews your earnings records each year. If you earned more during that year than in previous years, the SSA recalculates the amount of your benefit. 

However, you must keep in mind that working while receiving benefits could result in a reduction of your monthly benefits. For individuals who have not reached full retirement age, their benefits are reduced by $1 for each $2 earned above the yearly earnings limit. During the year in which you reach full retirement age, your benefits are reduced $1 for each $3 earned above the yearly earnings limit. Only the money you earn before the month you reach full retirement age is counted.

There is a different limit used for individuals during the year in which they reach full retirement age. The yearly earnings limits are adjusted each year. Earned income and income from self-employment are the only sources of income used to determine a reduction in benefits. Income from an annuity, pension plan, interest, investments, veterans’ benefits, and other government benefits are not included when calculating how much to reduce retirement benefits.

After you reach full retirement age, you can earn any amount and your benefits will not be reduced. 

Who Can Apply for Social Security Benefits?

You can apply for Social Security retirement income when you are age 61 years and 9 months. However, keep in mind the above discussion about reaching full retirement age. Applying for benefits before reaching full retirement age results in a decrease in benefits. 

Can I receive retirement benefits if I am receiving Social Security disability benefits?

It is important to note that you are not entitled to receive Social Security retirement income if you are already receiving Social Security benefits, such as Social Security Disability Income or Supplemental Security Income

If you are receiving Social Security Disability benefits, you may need to apply for your retirement benefits at your normal retirement age. Individuals receiving Supplemental Security Income typically do not have the required work credits to receive retirement income from the Social Security system.

Earning Work Credits to Qualify for Social Security Retirement Benefits

You must have at least 40 work credits to receive Social Security retirement income if you were born in 1929 or later. People born before 1929 need fewer work credits to receive retirement benefits. 

Work credits are earned as you work and pay Social Security taxes. Workers can earn up to four work credits per year. Therefore, if you have worked at least 10 years and earned the minimum wages for each year, you should have 40 work credits. The average person earns more than the required 40 work credits over a lifetime of work.

The amount of money you must earn each year to earn work credits changes from year to year. For example, in 2020, an employee must earn $1,410 in Social Security wages to earn one work credit. Therefore, your earnings in 2020 must be at least $5,640 to earn the maximum of four work credits for 2020. 

Applying for Benefits as a Surviving Spouse

A worker is not the only person who may apply for Social Security retirement income based on the worker’s employment record. A surviving spouse may be entitled to receive spousal benefits upon reaching full retirement age. 

The full retirement age for a surviving spouse is 66 years if born between 1945 and 1956. The full retirement age for a surviving spouse is 67 years if the spouse was born in 1962 or later. 

However, if a surviving spouse is disabled, the spouse may receive spousal benefits as young as age 50. A surviving spouse may also receive reduced benefits as young as 60 years of age. 

Also, a surviving spouse can receive benefits at any age if that spouse cares for your child who is younger than 16 years of age or who is disabled and receiving Social Security benefits. 

Applying for Benefits as a Surviving Child

Surviving children who are under 18 years of age or 19 years of age and still a full-time student in high school can receive benefits under your earning record. A child who was disabled before the age of 22 can receive benefits at any age. In some cases, grandchildren, stepchildren, and adopted children may also qualify for survivor benefits.

Applying for Benefits as a Divorced Spouse

Divorced spouses may also apply for Social Security retirement income based on an ex-spouse’s earnings record. You must have been married for at least 10 years for your ex-spouse to be eligible to receive benefits under your earning record. 

Former spouses must be at least 60 years of age or older to apply for surviving divorced spouse benefits. If the person is disabled, the person may qualify as young as 50 years of age for these disability retirement benefits. It is important to note that your ex-spouse is not required to meet the age or length of marriage requirements if your ex-spouse is caring for your child who is under the age of 16 years or is disabled at the time of your death. The child must be yours and your ex-spouse’s natural or adopted child.

Many individuals worry that an ex-spouse’s benefits under their work record could impact a current spouse’s benefit rate. That is not the case unless the surviving divorced spouse is receiving benefits as the parent of your disabled child or child under the age of 16 years. 

Things to Consider When Applying for Social Security Retirement Benefits

As you plan for your retirement, there are several things you should consider before filing your application for Social Security retirement income.

How Long Does It Take to Get Social Security Retirement Benefits?

In most cases, you should apply for your Social Security retirement benefits four months before you want to begin receiving retirement income. 

Life Expectancy

The life expectancy for adults has increased substantially during the past century. With better access to advanced health care and education about healthy lifestyles, many Americans are living well into their 80s, 90s, and beyond. 

You need to consider how long you may live when deciding when to retire. Your financial needs may change during retirement. If so, Social Security income may not be sufficient to pay living expenses for the next 20 to 30 years.

Taxes

You may be required to pay income taxes if you continue to work after your retirement benefits begin. Also, you may pay taxes if your income from other sources exceeds a certain amount. Before applying for Social Security benefits, consider the impact on your tax liability. Increasing your tax liability could place a strain on your finances during retirement. If you have income from various sources, you may want to consult a tax advisor to determine the best way to decrease tax liability during retirement. 

Health Care Expenses

Health care expenses typically increase with age. While Medicare covers some of these expenses, you need a plan to pay for the increase in health care expenses. It is a wise idea to research Medicare supplement health plan policies and other health insurance plans to ensure that you have sufficient health insurance coverage to pay for necessary costs and unexpected health care costs during retirement. 

Long-term Care Expenses

Many adults require some level of long-term care after retirement. From assisted living facilities to nursing homes, most seniors need some assistance with activities of daily living at some point during retirement. 

The cost of long-term care is expensive. Medicare only pays for a few months of nursing home care. Depending on your other resources, you may not qualify for Medicaid to pay for long-term care. You may want to research long-term care insurance policies and speak with a legal professional regarding Medicaid planning to make sure you can afford long-term care or assisted living if the need arises.

Other Sources of Retirement Income

Social Security retirement income may provide the income you need to maintain the standards of living and quality of life you desire after retirement. Developing a comprehensive retirement plan that includes various sources of retirement income is the best way to ensure you have sufficient funds during retirement to pay your living expenses and enjoy the activities and interests you desire. 

What Happens After I Apply for Social Security Retirement Benefits?

Once you apply for your Social Security retirement benefits, the Social Security office reviews your application. If you did not supply sufficient information or the SSA has any questions, an agent may contact you. The SSA also lets you know if you are eligible to receive benefits under another person’s work record or if your family members may be able to receive benefits under your work record.

After the SSA completes the review of your application, it will send you a letter with the details of its decision. If your application was complete and you are entitled to receive benefits, the process should be straightforward. 

SSA Denial

If the SSA denies your application for benefits or you disagree with the amount of your monthly benefits, you need to contact the SSA immediately to address the problem. There could be a mistake on your application or in the information maintained by the SSA that resulted in an invalid denial of benefits.

Keep in mind that some individuals are not eligible for Social Security retirement benefits, including workers who:

  • Have not reached the minimum retirement age
  • Do not have enough work credits
  • Ex-spouses not married for at least 10 years or with no children under 16 years of age or disabled
  • Live in certain foreign countries after retirement
  • Worked for certain government agencies or in certain government jobs
  • Self-employed individuals who evade self-employment taxes

Your application for Social Security retirement income could have been denied because the SSA has incorrect work information for you. It is a good idea to periodically review your work history to ensure the information reported to the SSA by your employers is correct. You can review your work history by creating a my Social Security Account. 

How to Decide When to Retire

Choosing when to retire can be challenging. There are several factors that you must consider, such as your health, potential retirement income, cost of living, and life expectancy.

Developing a comprehensive retirement plan while you are young is one of the best ways to ensure that you have the retirement income you need when you reach your desired retirement age. As you begin planning for retirement, a smart step is to review your Employee Benefits Package. It is important to understand how long you must work for the employer to become an eligible employee for qualified plans and any pension or optional retirement plan that your employer might offer.

Your employer may have several programs available that you can utilize to plan for retirement, such as employer-sponsored retirement plans, profit-sharing plans, employer contributions, employee contribution programs, and stock options. Ask your employer whether it offers a matching contribution and if the plan is a defined benefit plan in the form of a pension or a defined contribution plan, such as a 401(k). The differences could make a difference in the monthly retirement benefit you receive once you retire. 

After reviewing the retirement benefits offered by your employer, you may want to explore individual retirement accounts and options for saving for retirement. As you explore various accounts, consider your Social Security benefit options and discuss the beneficiary designation for the retirement account. 

The beneficiary designation is important. If your spouse is the beneficiary, make sure that your spouse includes that account in the anticipated monthly retirement benefit your spouse expects to receive after your death. Coordinating your plans is essential to ensure you and your spouse of sufficient income after you both quit working.

Develop a Retirement Plan Now

The sooner you begin preparing for retirement, the more money you can save. Retirement saving is an essential element of being prepared for your senior years. Working with retirement planners and other financial experts can also be very beneficial in ensuring you have the funds you need to support yourself and your spouse during your retirement years. 

You may want to review the Retirement Toolkit available online. The information in the toolkit was compiled by the Department of Labor, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, and the Social Security Administration. The toolkit has a timeline for retirement planning and other information that can help you as you develop a retirement plan that meets your needs and goals.