The Basics of Applying for Social Security Benefits

By Tom Margenau

June 13, 2018 7 min read

I've saved up a bunch of questions that have to do with applying for various kinds of Social Security benefits. Frankly, I think of most of them as rather elementary. But then I remind myself that I've dealt with Social Security issues almost every day of my life for the past 45 years. And most of my readers deal with the program, at least in a major way, only once in their life — at the time they file for benefits. So I hope those of you pushing Social Security age get something out of this.

Q: I want to retire when I am 66 in September. When should I apply for benefits?

A: The Social Security Administration recommends that you file three months before your eligibility date. So you could start the ball rolling now already. But there really is no need to rush. Most Social Security retirement claims are very simple and SSA processes them in a matter of days. So you could wait until September if you wanted to and your first check (the check that comes in October) will show up on time. Still, better safe than sorry. So apply sometime this month or next.

Q: How do you recommend I file for my Social Security benefits?

A: About 95 percent of us have straightforward Social Security claims. In other words, you don't want to play games trying to beat the system. You just want to file for your retirement benefits. In that case, I strongly recommend you file online at It's simple and easy. I did so a few years back and it probably took me a half-hour to finish the process. If you do have a scenario that you think might be complicated (like trying to get a combination of retirement and spousal benefits), then you should probably do that in person. Call SSA at 800-772-1213 and either file by phone or set up an appointment to talk to someone at your local Social Security office.

Q: What documents do I need to file for my Social Security benefits?

A: It depends on the kind of benefits you are trying to get. Think of it this way: You usually have to provide evidence to support your eligibility. For example, if it's for a retirement claim, you need to prove you are old enough to qualify. So to do that, you need a birth certificate. If you are filing for spousal benefits, you need to prove not only your age but also that you are married to the person on whose Social Security record you are applying. So that would be a marriage certificate. If you are a divorced spouse, you'd need to provide your divorce papers as well. If you want to apply for widow's benefits, in addition to proving your age and marriage, you need a death certificate, too. In all cases, SSA wants to see original copies of these documents, or copies certified by the record holder.

Q: I haven't seen my Social Security card in years. I know it's buried in the house somewhere, but I just don't know where. I'm frantically trying to find it now that I am getting ready to file for my Social Security benefits. Do I need my Social Security card to apply?

A: Relax and stop looking for your Social Security card. You do not need the card when you sign up for Social Security.

Q: I signed up for my Social Security retirement at my local office last week. To be honest, I was a bit leery about the whole process because the clerk I was dealing with was either new at his job or not the brightest bulb in the pack (if you get my drift). I am concerned that he will make mistakes in the calculation of my Social Security checks. What do you recommend I do?

A: I recommend you relax. The local representative you talked to has nothing to do with the calculation of your Social Security retirement benefit. That is all done by SSA's national computer network — a system that is notoriously accurate when it comes to figuring out how much a person is due from Social Security.

Q: I just learned that my ex-husband has died. He was getting Social Security checks and they were much higher than the pittance I get from my own Social Security retirement. We were married more than 10 years. Neither of us ever remarried. I think I might be due divorced widow's benefits. But here is the problem: I have no record of his Social Security number. A neighbor lady told me that without that number, I could never claim benefits on his record. I've looked through all the files that I have and can't find anything. Now I'm frantic. Is what my neighbor told me true?

A: Don't listen to neighbors about Social Security matters! Or rather, to be fair to her, she is right that you need his Social Security number to claim benefits on his record. But the people at the Social Security Administration will be able to get that number for you. So stop searching and worrying.

Q: My ex-husband recently died. He was only 45 years old. His two children, ages 14 and 12, have lived with me since the divorce. I understand they are now eligible for survivor benefits. But I do not have my ex's Social Security number. How can I possibly file for benefits on his account?

A: Your situation is slightly different than the woman who asked the prior question. In her case, her husband was getting retirement benefits, so the Social Security people have ready access to his records and his number via their beneficiary database. But your husband was young and still working, so his Social Security number is not so readily available. But your local Social Security office will still be able to help you find it. To do so, they will need just a few bits of information I'm sure you have: his name, his date and place of birth and his parents' names. Usually with that information, they can find the Social Security number.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at [email protected] To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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