You know you’ll have to do it someday. In fact, you’re probably looking forward to it; the day you sign up for Social Security and get the benefit of all the money that’s been taken out of your paycheck during your working years.
For the most part, signing up is an easy process. Most people sign up online. If you don’t have a My Social Security account, you’ll be asked to create one before you move on. Once that’s done you need to make sure you meet the requirements to apply online, gather all the information you’ll need for the application process, then click the “start application” button. The process takes approximately 10-30 minutes. After you’ve submitted the online application, you can check its status anytime by signing in to your My Social Security account.
But there are some potholes you might fall in that could alter your benefit and cause problems you weren’t expecting. Social Security may change applications to a list of default choices SSA has put in place or a choice of benefits SSA thinks are better for you.
For example, if you apply for benefits anytime after reaching full retirement age (FRA), you have the option to receive up to six months of your benefit in a lump sum. But if you choose the lump sum option, you’re treated as though you applied to begin benefits six months earlier, giving you a monthly benefit 4% lower than you expected. SSA’s policy is to give you the lump sum unless you specifically decline it.
Surviving spouses have to watch out. If they’ve earned their own retirement benefit, they’re in a unique situation. They qualify for their own retirement benefit as well as a benefit based on their deceased spouse’s work record. Normally an individual who qualifies for more than one type of benefit files for Social Security, they are “deemed to have filed for all available benefits,” and will be paid only the highest one available. But in the case of a surviving spouse, they can file for their own benefit and later switch to the surviving spouse benefit or the other way around.
For example, a surviving spouse might actually increase the amount of money they receive from SSA by first applying for the surviving spouse benefit and allowing their own retirement benefit to grow to its maximum at age 70, then switching to the benefit based on their own work history. Or the opposite may be the best option.
Here’s where the rub comes. You have to make it absolutely clear on your application that you are applying for only one type of benefit. If you don’t, the Social Security default rule kicks in and SSA will assume you’ve applied for all benefits available to you and you will be paid the highest benefit right then, forfeiting the right to switch to another benefit later on.
The way to avoid traps like this is to use the Remarks Section on the application. That’s where you can make clear exactly what benefits you want and what you want Social Security to do. It doesn’t have to be long. Usually one sentence or two tells your story and keeps you from getting sent into SSA’s default choices.
Let’s go back to the widow who wants to apply for her own Social Security benefit now and switch to the survivor benefit later when it will pay more than her retirement benefit. In the Remarks Section she can write, “I am filing only for retirement benefits and want to exclude survivor’s benefits from this application. Simple enough. Make sure you keep a copy of your application, just in case there’s an issue later.
Suppose you’ll delay taking your benefit until age 70, when no more delayed credits will be added. You want the maximum benefit available. You don’t want a Social Security default that would give you a six-month lump sum, set your application age to 69 and 6 months and reduce your monthly check. In the Remarks Section write something like this. “I want my application date/entitlement date to be age 70. I do not want retroactive benefits I may be entitled to.” Just like the previous example, be clear, be specific, and keep a copy of the application.
The Social Security Administration places a lot of importance on the Remarks Section. It its rule book, the Program Operations Manual System (POMS) it says that “an applicant may restrict their application using the Remarks Section.” Anything you write in the Remarks Section has to be clear and specific. If you hedge or use what SSA calls qualifying phrases, things like “at this time,” or “in the future I intend to…” those statements will be ignored.
POMS gives a couple of examples of what clear statements are:
- “I filed on (date) for all benefits for which I may be eligible except _____.”
- “I wish to exclude _____ benefit from the scope of this application.”
Do not ignore the Remarks Section of the Social Security application. It will save you from falling into the default pothole and make sure you receive the benefits you want, not what SSA thinks you should have.
This article is presented as information only and should not be considered financial, tax or legal advice.