No Rush To File For Social Security Benefits

Q: I plan to start my Social Security when I turn 65 in January 2012. When and how should I file? What documents will I need?

A: The Social Security Administration usually tells people to file three months before they want their retirement benefits to begin. So you could start the ball rolling any time now. But you really don’t have to rush. Standard retirement claims are pretty easy for SSA to deal with, and they generally flow through the system in just a few days. I’m not saying you should wait until Dec. 31 to file for Social Security. The point is that you certainly don’t have to run out and file a claim tomorrow.

But here’s another thought: You might want to wait until sometime in late January to apply for your Social Security benefits. If you put off filing your claim until after you get your 2011 W-2 form, your earnings will be added into your Social Security computation, which will increase your monthly benefit amount. Because you’re filing in January, your claim will be effective that month. You possibly might not get your initial Social Security benefit payment until late February or early March, but that first check will include benefits retroactive until January.

I don’t want to scare you and other readers into thinking that you won’t get credit for your 2011 earnings if you don’t present them with a W-2 form at the time you file. If you file your Social Security claim tomorrow, for example, your initial benefit will be computed without your 2011 earnings added into the mix. But sometime during 2012, SSA will get a report of your 2011 earnings from the Internal Revenue Service, and at that time, your benefit will be refigured to give you credit for the additional income. And that refigured benefit will be retroactive to January 2012.

You also asked how to apply for Social Security benefits and what documents you need. Today, most people file their retirement claims online at But if you prefer old-fashioned human contact, you can call the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213 and set up an appointment to file your claim by phone or even in person at your local Social Security office.

Most people need only one official document when they sign up for Social Security retirement benefits, and that’s a certified copy of their birth certificate to prove they’re legally old enough to qualify for benefits. However, SSA is experimenting with procedures, and you may soon learn that you don’t even need to present a birth certificate. That’s partly because the agency may already have such documentation on file. If you presented the agency with a birth certificate when you applied for your original Social Security number and card, they may not need another copy when you sign up for retirement benefits.

Q: My Social Security checks seem to come on a different day each month. This makes it very hard to plan my finances. Why can’t they send Social Security checks on time each month? I know my mother always got her widow’s check on the third of each month.

A: All Social Security checks used to be paid on the third of each month. But sending out 50 million government checks all on one day was too much of a burden for both the Social Security Administration and the post office. (This was before the advent of direct deposit.) So, many years ago, they decided to stagger the delivery of Social Security checks. They’re now sent out (or more likely, electronically transferred to banks) on either the second, third or fourth Wednesday of each month, depending on a person’s day of birth.

As a general rule, if you were born on the first through the 10th day of the month, you get your checks on the second Wednesday. If you were born on the 11th through the 20th day of the month, it’s the third Wednesday. If you were born on the 21st through the 31st day of the month, it’s the fourth Wednesday.

So whichever Wednesday is your delivery day, it’ll obviously change from one month to the next. Looking at my calendar, for example, I see that the second Wednesday of December 2011 will be the 9th, while the second Wednesday of January 2012 will be the 11th. But the point is this: Your check will be delivered on the same Wednesday of every month.

Q: I am a Canadian citizen who has been living and working in the United States for 20 years. I’ve paid into Social Security all these years. I’m about to retire and plan to move back to Victoria, British Columbia. Will I get my Social Security checks there?

A: Yes, you will. The United States has Social Security treaty agreements with about 25 countries around the world, and Canada is one of those countries. You can receive American Social Security benefits while living in Canada, just as a Canadian citizen can receive Canadian Social Security benefits while living in the United States.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at 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



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