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When and How to Apply for Social Security Benefits

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Actually applying for Social Security retirement benefits is the easy part. You can apply online, by telephone or by walking into your local Social Security office. The hard part is deciding when to apply for your Social Security retirement benefits and rounding up all the documents you'll need when you do.

Are You Eligible?

Becoming eligible to get Social Security retirement requires both reaching a certain age and earning enough Social Security "credits." You earn credits by working and paying Social Security taxes. If you were born in 1929 or later, you need 40 credits (10 years of work) to qualify. If you stop working, you stop earning credits until you return to work. No matter what your age is, you cannot get Social Security retirement benefits until you have earned 40 credits.

How Much Can You Expect to Get?

Your Social Security retirement benefit payment is based on how much you made during your working years. The more you earned, the more you'll get when you retire.

Your Your Social Security retirement benefit payment is also affected by the age at which you decide to retire. You can retire as early as age 62, but if you retire before your full retirement age, your benefits will be permanently reduced, based on your age. For example, if you retire at age 62, your benefit would be about 25 percent lower than what it would be if you waited until you reach full retirement age. So, when is the best time to retire?

When Should You Retire?

Deciding when to retire is totally up to you and your family. Just keep in mind that Social Security replaces only about 40 percent of the average worker's preretirement income. If you can live comfortably on 40 percent of what you're making at work, problem solved, but financial experts estimate that most people will need 70-80 percent of their preretirement income to have a "comfortable" retirement.

To draw full retirement benefits, the following Social Security Administration age rules apply:

Born in 1937 or earlier - Full retirement can be drawn at age 65
Born in 1938 - Full retirement can be drawn at age 65 years and 2 months
Born in 1939 -- Full retirement can be drawn at age 65 years and 4 months
Born in 1940 -- Full retirement can be drawn at age 65 years and 6 months
Born in 1941 -- Full retirement can be drawn at age 65 years and 8 months
Born in 1942 -- Full retirement can be drawn at age 65 years and 10 months
Born in 1943-1954 -- Full retirement can be drawn at age 66
Born in 1955 - Full retirement can be drawn at age 66 and 2 months
Born in 1956 -- Full retirement can be drawn at age 66 and 4 months
Born in 1957 -- Full retirement can be drawn at age 66 and 6 months
Born in 1958 -- Full retirement can be drawn at age 66 and 8 months
Born in 1959 -- Full retirement can be drawn at age 66 and 10 months
Born in 1960 or later -- Full retirement can be drawn at age 67

Remember that while you can begin drawing Social Security retirement benefits at age 62, your benefits will be 25 percent less than what they will be if you wait until your full retirement age as shown above. Also keep in mind that no matter when you start drawing Social Security benefits, you must be 65 to be eligible for Medicare.

Delayed Retirement: On the other hand, if you wait to retire beyond your full retirement age, your Social Security benefit will automatically increase by a percentage based on your year of birth. For example, if you were born in 1943 or later, Social Security will add 8 percent per year to your benefit for each year that you delay signing up for Social Security beyond your full retirement age.

If Health Problems Force You to Retire Early

Sometimes health problems force people to retire early. If you cannot work because of health problems, you should consider applying for Social Security disability benefits. The amount of the disability benefit is the same as a full, unreduced retirement benefit. If you are receiving Social Security disability benefits when you reach full retirement age, those benefits will be converted to retirement benefits.

Documents You Will Need

Whether you apply online or in person, you will need the following information when you apply for your Social Security benefits:

If you choose to have your benefits paid through direct deposit, you will also need your banks name, your account number and your bank's routing number as shown on the bottom of your checks.

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