Registering for your Social Security benefits when you retire may seem about as appealing as an anesthetic-free root canal. You may have images in your head of endless paperwork and headaches.
But the truth is, registration is surprising easy, particularly online. Here are the steps you will need to register for Social Security retirement benefits—and it shouldn’t take you more than 15 to 30 minutes:
1. Check eligibility. Before you do anything else, you will want to double check that you are, indeed, eligible for benefits. You would hate to get all the way through the registration process before you discovered that fact. To keep that from happening, Social Security offers the Benefit Eligibility Screening Tool (BEST) to help you determine your eligibility status. This tool is anonymous, requiring neither your name nor your Social Security number.
2. Gather paperwork. Before you sit down at the computer to complete the online form, find all of the pertinent documents you will need to complete the process. These documents include your birth certificate (or naturalization papers if you were not born in the United States), your Social Security card, W-2 or self-employment forms for the last year, U.S. military discharge records, and your most recent Social Security statement.
3. Log on. On the Social Security homepage ssa.gov, click on the hyperlink titled “Apply online for retirement benefits” located in the top left corner. On the next page, you will click on the button “Apply for Retirement.”
4. All about you. You will fill in information about yourself, including name, address, gender, date of birth, and Social Security number. The application will also prompt you to give your employer’s name and address, and your income for this year and last year. You will need to provide the dates of military service if applicable. Finally, the application will need information about your spouse (or spouses if you have been married more than once). You will need to give your spouse’s name, address, age, and Social Security number, and date of death if your spouse has pre-deceased you.
5. Earning history. Your most recent Social Security statement provides you with information about your earnings over your lifetime. The application asks for details about this information, but even if you do not have your statement, don’t worry. You can fill out the application without it and the Social Security Administration can help you fill in any omitted information when they process your form.
6. E-Sign. Once you have completed your form, you will be asked to click on the “Sign Now” button, which serves as your electronic signature. Once you have completed the form, print it out and keep a copy for your records.
After submitting the online form, you will still need to mail some of your supporting documents—such as birth or death certificates, naturalization papers, W2s, and military records—to the Social Security Administration. The online form will provide you with the mailing address for these documents.
Although the registration process should be short enough to be completed in one sitting, you may find that you have to save your application and come back later. Each application is given an application number at the beginning of the process that you should write down in case you need to save your work and return to it later.
If you are missing some required information, go ahead and fill out the form anyway. The Social Security Administration will contact you for any additional information that they need to complete your registration, whereas not completing your application will delay your benefits.