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Social Security and You: Filing Date Still Confuses Readers

Tom Margenau on

Even after writing several recent columns about the issue, I still get many emails from readers confused about which date to choose as the starting date for their Social Security retirement benefits.

The confusion essentially centers around the fact that Social Security checks are paid one month behind. For example, the Social Security payment for November will be sent to you in December. That's a relatively straightforward rule, but it leads to all kinds of problems, especially when people are filing for their Social Security benefits online. Here is a typical example:

Q: I will be 66 in February 2020. I don't want any reduced benefits, so I want to make sure my checks start at age 66. The online application is asking me which month I want to start my benefits. I know checks come one month behind, so I'm afraid if I put down February as my starting month, that will be the January Social Security check, meaning I will get a reduced amount for starting my benefits before age 66. So should I indicate March as my starting month?

A: You turn 66 in February. So if you want your benefits to begin when you are 66, you should indicate February as your starting month.

In other words, don't concern yourself with the month your Social Security check is actually delivered to you. The application question isn't asking, "Which month do you want your first check to be sent to you?" Instead, it is essentially asking you this: "Which month do you want to be your first month of eligibility for Social Security benefits?" And again, in your case, that is February 2020.

In some cases, people sent me their questions after the fact. And it's causing them all kinds of undue stress. Here is an example of that:

 

Q: I was 65 in September, and that's when I wanted my Social Security to start. But the question on the online form confused me, and I thought if I indicated August as the starting check, knowing that it would come in September, then September would be my starting month. But then I got a letter from Social Security telling me that my benefits had started in August, one month before my 65th birthday, meaning I now will get a reduced benefit for the rest of my life. Please help me. What can I do about this?

A: What you can do is relax. You made a little goof. You can correct it if you want. But really, it's not that big a deal, so you may want to just let things ride.

You didn't give me your benefit amount, but let's assume your age 65 benefit rate would have been $2,200 per month. But you mistakenly started your Social Security at age 64 years and 11 months. Retirement benefits are reduced five-ninths of 1% for each month they are taken early. So your monthly rate (with an August start date) might be about $2,185 or so. In other words, you will lose around $15 per month forever. But on the plus side, you got that one extra $2,185 Social Security check for August. It will take you about 145 months, or more than 12 years, before you come out on the short end of the stick by making this minor error in your starting date. Or to put that another way, you will be 77 years old before this mistake catches up with you.

If I were you, I wouldn't worry about it, and I'd just let things go. But if it is going to bother you, you can contact the Social Security Administration and tell them you want to withdraw your original claim and file a new claim with September as your starting date. If you do that, you will have to return the Social Security checks you've already received.

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