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Social Security: Know before you go

Social Security: Know before you go!

According to the Pew Research Center starting January 1st 2011 “Roughly 10,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65 today, and about 10,000 more will cross that threshold every day for the next 19 years.”  Most of those turning 65 and many more approaching that age are thinking about retirement.  The sad truth is that most retirees have very little understanding of Social Security benefits and can make decisions that will affect their income for the rest of their lives.  Retirement, retirement planning and strategies seem to be on the front page of Yahoo and other sites every day.  Some of the stories help; some of them are just confusing.

Fortunately, there are great tools available for free from Social Security to make the decision making process easier.  SSA offers publications and retirement tools on the website.  Make sure the page you are on is the .gov webpage, it is the official Social Security site, there are many predators on the web that will try and charge you for the information and filing of benefits.  Social Security does not charge a fee for filing for retirement benefits. If you are just beginning your plan for retirement SSA offers a great basic primer publication (  The webpage also offers a variety of free tools that can be used to see the different monthly amounts based on your own earnings as you look at the difference between filing for early benefits at 62, 65, 67 or even 70 years old.  These tools are valuable for making the decisions for the rest of your life. You can also file for benefits on the webpage when you are ready. You can also file over the phone or in person at your Social Security office, but you will need to contact SSA and make an appointment well in advance. Appointments can be made by calling 1-800-772-1213.

Regardless of filing electronically or in person you are going to have to provide SSA with information and documentation to make the process go smoothly.  Using the tools SSA provides will make the process move very smoothly.

Documents you need to have in order to retire.

  • Your Social Security number;
  • Your birth certificate;
  • Your W-2 forms or self-employment tax return for last year;
  • Your military discharge papers if you had military service;
  • Your spouse’s birth certificate and Social Security number if he or she is applying for benefits;
  • Children’s birth certificates and Social Security numbers, if you are applying for children’s benefits;
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status if you (or a spouse or child applying for benefits) were not born in the United States; and
  • The name of your financial institution, the routing number and your account number, so your benefits can be deposited directly into your account. If you do not have an account at a financial institution or prefer receiving your benefits on a prepaid debit card you can receive a Direct Express® card. For more information, visit

You will need to submit original documents or copies certified by the issuing office. You can mail or bring them to Social Security. They will make photocopies and return your documents.

Any time money and complex or confusing government programs are combined; there are people who will take advantage of the situation.  To avoid fraud many companies now offer retirement counseling as do many financial services firms.  It is important to understand that Social Security does not train or endorse anyone outside of SSA in retirement.  If you choose to use assistance in your retirement make sure you are dealing with a company or individual that at least is trained and certified is some type of financial planning recognized by major financial institutions.  By using the SSA webpage, publications and tools you will be more informed. You will know something about retirement, if the answers you are getting from your advisor do not sound like what you have read on Social Security’s documents you should be very cautious.  There are no secrets or tricks to getting the most from your retirement. No one can offer a “secret” to get more than you could on your own.  Remember you are providing very sensitive information, information that in the wrong hands could be used to steal your identity.

The key to a successful retirement is prior planning and education. SSA has made every effort to provide an easier to understand system.  Yes, it is still very complicated. Yes, it can be confusing. Yes, you can take charge of your retirement by spending some time with family or friends going over the information provided by the agency to make you better informed.  You are looking at a decision that will play a role in your life for decades, doing it fast and easy may not always be the best choice.


The Area Agency on Aging would like to thank Steve Fulton for contributing this blog.  Steve is a former Social Security Claims Representative, who is trained in both retirement and disability claims.  Steve can be reached at


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