As you near retirement age, you may be planning to apply for your Social Security retirement benefits. While your retirement savings may make up the bulk of your post-retirement income as the result of many years of both financial planning and investing, your Social Security income can be an important supplement. 

According to the Social Security Administration, it’s a good idea to start the application process about four months before your intended retirement date. Keep reading for information on all the documents you need to collect and have at your disposal when you get ready to apply for your Social Security retirement benefits.

5 Documents Needed to Apply for Retirement

Every situation is unique, but there are a few standard documents you can expect to provide as part of the Social Security benefits application process.

  1. Original birth certificate or certified copy
  2. Original Social Security card or record of Social Security number
  3. Proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status if you were born outside of the United States
  4. A copy of your W-2 form or self-employment tax return if applicable
  5. A copy of military service papers if applicable and you served before 1968

When it’s time for retirement, you want to make sure you have access to all the income and benefits that you’re due, so that you can relax and enjoy your retirement years after being a valued member of the workforce. While it may not compose the bulk of your retirement income, your Social Security income can be a nice complement to the retirement savings you’ve likely worked years to accrue, so you don’t want to miss out on them. 

In fact, according to the Social Security Administration, Social Security is “our nation's most effective poverty prevention program; its retirement, disability, and survivor benefits keep 21 million Americans out of poverty, including 14 million seniors." Nine out of 10 people age 65 and older receive Social Security benefits, and for many, those benefits make up around 33 percent of their total retirement income. So, it literally pays to make sure you apply for your benefits – including submitting all the right information.

The documents outlined here will be necessary for the application process, so if you’re preparing to apply for Social Security retirement benefits, it’s a good idea to go ahead and start gathering the documents you’ll need. We’ll walk you through all the pertinent documents you should begin to assemble.      

Which Form Do I Need to Apply for Retirement?

You do need to submit a formal application for retirement benefits, which is very easy to  complete online. It should take you no longer than 15-30 minutes. Throughout the process, you’ll have access to the Social Security Administration’s online checklist that can help you verify that you’ve submitted all the appropriate information. And when it comes to providing your requested documentation, the online retirement application will walk you through each appropriate document, which you can then mail to the Social Security Administration or deliver to your nearest Social Security Administration office.

If you need to pause your application at any point and come back to it later, that’s also fine. The system will allow you to do that, so you don’t even have to complete and submit your application all in one sitting. This can be helpful if you need to take a break to look up a piece of information or find a particular document. You can also save changes and go back through your application and make updates before pressing the Submit button. Once you’re finished, you’ll electronically sign your retirement application and hit submit. You’ll then receive a confirmation number that will allow you to check the access of your retirement application at any time.

In addition to the documents outlined here, there are a few other pieces of information you should be prepared to share with the Social Security Administration: 

  • If you’re married, you’ll need to provide your spouse’s name, Social Security number, date of birth, and age. Plus, you’ll need to provide your date and location of marriage – a marriage certificate will suffice.
  • Routing and account numbers for your bank, so you can make sure your payments are delivered via direct deposit. 
  • Requested effective date for your Social Security retirement benefits 
  • Whether you’d like to enroll for health benefits through Medicare Part B, if eligible to join
  • If you have any unmarried children under age 18 or any children with special needs under age 22
  • Whether you and/or someone else has ever applied for Social Security benefits, Medicare or Supplemental Security Income on your behalf
  • Whether you’ve ever used a different Social Security number

You can also visit your local Social Security office and apply for your benefits in person. It’s a good idea to call first and make an appointment for someone to help guide you through the retirement application process. The Social Security Administration can help you with your retirement application over the phone through its national toll-free service at 1-800-772-1213.

Once the Social Security Administration has received your retirement application and all supporting information, it will review your information and send you a letter informing you of its decision. If you’ve worked for at least 10 years, you are likely to receive some Social Security benefits, and, of course, the longer you’ve worked, the more benefits you’re likely to be eligible for.

5 Documents Needed to Apply for Retirement

Let’s take a closer look at each of the documents needed for retirement benefits. It’s also worth noting that if you’ve previously submitted any of these items – for example, for a Medicare or disability claim, you don’t have to submit it again.

1. Original Birth Certificate or Certified Copy

While the Social Security Administration will accept photocopies of most required documents, like W-2 forms, tax returns, or medical information, you will have to submit either an original copy of your birth certificate or a copy that has been certified by the agency that issued it. The Social Security Administration will not accept a photocopied birth certificate, even if it’s notarized. The SSA will return all original documentation once your application process is complete.

2. Original Social Security Card or Record of Social Security Number

This is an important piece of documentation – your Social Security number is your link to the Social Security retirement benefits system. Your specific, individualized number has been used throughout your working life to track your earnings, which will help determine the level of benefits you’ll receive once you retire. At that point, the number will then be used to track your benefits. The Social Security Administration needs to verify your number to make sure all records are accurate and you get the benefits you’re eligible to receive. 

3. Proof of U.S. Citizenship or Lawful Alien Status if You Were Born Outside of the United States

The Social Security Administration accepts several documents as proof of U.S. citizenship, including a U.S. birth certificate, U.S. passport, a certificate of naturalization and/or a certificate of citizenship. Non-citizens can show lawful alien status by presenting Department of Homeland Security documents, including form I-551, commonly known as a Green Card, or DHS form I-94, Admission-Departure Record. As with birth certificates, the Social Security Administration will accept only original documents or those certified by the agencies that issued them. The SSA will return all original documentation once your application process is complete.

4. Copy of Your W-2 Form or Self Employment Tax Return, if Applicable 

In some cases, your line of work may affect the benefits you receive, so the Social Security Administration will need some basic documentation of your current employment and even your employment history. The SSA needs your current employer’s name and contact information, and they need to know how much money you made this year and last year, and much of that information is easily available on your W-2 form. 

If you are an employee of an organization, you can easily submit the W-2 form your employer provides. The Social Security Administration will accept a photocopy of this form. If you are self-employed, you can provide similar information by submitting a copy of Schedule C and SE from your tax return.

In some cases, the SSA may request an estimate of how much money you’d expect to make next year as well. You might also be prepared to disclose whether you haven’t been able to work because of a disability, including injury or illness, for the 14 months prior to your retirement application.

5. Copy of Military Service Papers if Applicable and You Served Before 1968

Because earnings from military service also count toward Social Security benefits, you’ll need to show appropriate documentation of any time spent serving in the U.S. armed forces for the SSA to appropriately calculate your level of benefit. Eligible service also includes inactive duty service in the armed forces reserves, including weekend drills. 

If you have a DD214 Certificate of Release or a Discharge from Active Duty form, both are acceptable for this type of documentation. If you served two or more periods of active duty separated by more than one month, you’ll need to provide appropriate documentation for each military stint. For this category of documentation, you must submit original copies. The SSA will return all original documentation once your application process is complete.

What If I Don’t Have All the Documents?

If you can’t immediately put your hands on all the documents listed here, you’re not alone. Fortunately, you can still complete the application process. Provide all the available information that you do have. You’ll have a chance throughout the process to supply any missing documents, and the Social Security Administration may even be able to help you get them if you’re having trouble.

For example, the Social Security Administration is often able to contact your state Bureau of Vital Statistics and verify your information online at no cost to you. And if that isn’t possible, your local Social Security office may still be able to help you get what you need to complete the process.

Just don’t let missing documents or information delay the process – if you wait too long, you could miss out on benefits that you’re due.

Documents Needed for Retirement Benefits

Applying for your Social Security retirement benefits is a big step toward making sure you have the income and benefits necessary to enjoy your retirement. And while most of the documents you need to complete the process are fairly common and easy to gather, it never hurts to start early and be ahead of the game. 

Once you’ve gathered up all the documents and information you need, you’re likely to find the Social Security retirement benefits application process easy and painless – and you’ll then be well on your way to supplementing your retirement income and making the most of your retirement years.