Ready to Apply for Social Security? Ask yourself these 3 questions first

Applying for Social Security is a pretty big deal. While it’s technically possible to cancel your claim if you regret signing up, it’s much easier to just make the right decision. Before submitting your application to the Social Security Administration, ask yourself these questions to make sure you’re really ready.

1. How Does Claiming Now Affect Your Checks?

The age at which you apply for Social Security determines how big your checks are. You must wait until your full retirement age (FRA) — between 66 and 67, depending on your year of birth — to claim the benefit you earned based on your work history. But you can start as early as 62.

Smiling couple looking at laptop in kitchen.

Image source: Getty Images.

Claiming under your FRA will lower your checks to 25% if your FRA is 66 or 30% if your FRA is 67. But this can still be the way to go if you need your checks to pay your bills. Many with serious health conditions also choose to apply early so that they can claim checks for as many years as possible.

Deferring distributions will increase your checks little by little until you reach your maximum payout at 70. This gives you an extra 24% per month if your FRA is 67 or an extra 32% if your FRA is 66. Waiting until then to sign up for Social Security can lead to a larger lifetime benefit, especially if you live in your mid-80s or older.

2. What are the consequences of claiming your family members now?

If you are single without dependents, social security only affects you. But this is not the case for married couples and those with dependent children. Since child and partner benefits are based on your Social Security checks, it will also affect your claim.

For example, suppose you decide to claim Social Security after only 30 years of employment. When calculating your benefit, the government looks at your 35 best-earning years, and if you haven’t worked that long, those zero-income years count.

Even one of these can lower your monthly allowance by several dollars. And your spouse and any eligible children also get less per month when they claim benefits on your work record than if you stayed in the workforce for 35 years.

That’s why it’s a good idea to make decisions about claiming Social Security with all family members involved. Come up with a claim strategy that maximizes your household benefits. But remember, if you’re the only person who has worked long enough to qualify for Social Security, you’ll need to apply yourself before anyone else can claim benefits on your work record.

3. When does your benefit start?

Your first Social Security check will not appear on the day the Social Security Administration approves your application. It pays the benefits in the month following the month on which the benefits are due. So, for example, if you register in August and you are already 62 years or older, you will receive your first check in September.

It’s a little trickier for those who sign up at 62. You don’t qualify until you’re 62 for a whole month. If you were born on the first or second of a month, your month of birth counts as your first month of eligibility. But if you were born on a different day, you won’t be eligible until the following month.

For example, someone born on August 17 wouldn’t be eligible for Social Security until September after turning 62, and they wouldn’t receive their first check until October of that year. But you can apply for Social Security up to four months before your first month of eligibility.

When you actually receive your benefit depends on the day of the month in which you were born. This is the current schedule:

  • Date of birth between the 1st and the 10th: Second Wednesday of every month.
  • Date of birth between the 11th and 20th: Third Wednesday of every month.
  • Date of birth between 21 and 31: Fourth Wednesday of every month.

Make sure you know exactly when you’re going to receive checks so you don’t get into trouble in the meantime. Have a financial plan to cover your expenses yourself between when you apply for benefits and when you actually receive them.

If any of the above information is new to you, you may want to reconsider your decision to claim Social Security now. That doesn’t mean you should change your mind. Take a moment to review your options to see if there’s a better claim age for you.

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