Senior Living



Social Security and You: Be Prepared

Tom Margenau on

I got an email from a woman who had recently filed for widow's benefits. She was writing to tell me that the process went very smoothly, and her benefits started within weeks of her application. She said one of the reasons things went so well is that she had done her homework and was prepared with all the information the Social Security Administration might need, including a death certificate and copies of her marriage papers.

I thought I'd help other readers (who haven't yet filed for benefits) be prepared for their eventual encounter with the SSA. So today, I'm going to write a column about when and how to file for Social Security benefits.

First, let me clarify the "when to file" part. If you are filing for widow's benefits (as was the lady who sent me the email), you will almost always do that soon after the death of your spouse. But most readers will be filing for retirement benefits. And as I've said repeatedly in this column, I am not a financial planner. So, I really can't advise you about the best time to start your Social Security retirement benefits. That's a decision only you can make, perhaps after consulting a real financial planner.

I'm just an old retired Social Security guy. All I can do is explain Social Security rules to you to help you make that decision. In my book, "Social Security: Simple and Smart," I have a whole chapter devoted to this topic. So, you might want to check it out. You can order the book online at

Whether you make that decision on your own or with the help of my book or a financial planner, once you decide the month you want your benefits to start, many of you still want to know how far in advance you should file for those benefits. And that is the "when to file" advice I am offering in this column.

Let me begin by pointing this out. Your Social Security eligibility date is always a month, not a day. For example, let's say you were born Jan. 28, 1957, and you want your benefits to start at your full retirement age. The full retirement age for people born in 1957 is 66 and 6 months. So, you will reach full retirement age on July 28, 2023. But the day you reach FRA isn't really an issue. It's the month that is key. In other words, your eligibility date isn't July 28, 2023. It's just July 2023.


The Social Security Administration recommends that you file three months before your eligibility month. So, if you wanted your benefits to start in May, you could start the ball rolling sometime in February 2022.

I used to advise people that there really was no need to rush because most Social Security retirement claims are very simple and the SSA would process them in literally a matter of days. So, in the past, I would have told people whose eligibility date is July that they could even wait until June if they wanted and there would be a very good chance their first check would show up on time. But the fallout of the pandemic seems to have messed things up at the SSA. I've heard from so many readers who report to me about delays in either getting through to the SSA in the first place or in getting their benefits started. My motto for the time being is this: better safe than sorry. File your Social Security claim three months before your first eligibility month.

But don't let me scare you. Once you contact the SSA, you've established what they call a "protective filing date" and your rights to benefits are guaranteed from that month forward. For example, let's say you wanted your benefits to start in January 2023, but for whatever reason, you didn't get around to filing your claim until January 25, 2023. Even though your claim might not finish processing until sometime in February or possibly even March, you will be paid back to January.

That's the "when to file" message. About three months ahead of time would be ideal. Now let's tackle the "how to file" issue.


swipe to next page




Mike Peters David M. Hitch A.F. Branco Ed Wexler Adam Zyglis Jerry King Cartoons