In the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt worked with Congress to create a federal "old-age pension" to provide for those who could no longer provide for themselves. On Aug. 14, 1935, Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law, creating a federal safety net to ensure the social welfare of the nation's elderly. Today, every American worker and employer contributes to a federal fund that's used to pay current retirees. You don't have your own personal Social Security account; everyone draws from the same pool.
Every working American is entitled to collect Social Security. The first piece of information you need is a Social Security number, available to all U.S. citizens and legal residents through the Social Security Administration (SSA).
The next piece of information you need is your total number of work credits. To qualify for Social Security, you must obtain at least 40 work credits, which is the equivalent of roughly 10 years of full-time work [source: Social Security Administration]. The Social Security Administration sends you an annual report indicating how many credits you've earned and your projected benefits if you stopped working now.
Perhaps the most important information you'll need to claim Social Security is your age. When you choose to retire has a significant impact on the dollar amount of your retirement benefits. The earlier you retire, the less you'll collect. The minimum retirement age for collecting social security is 62, but the "full" retirement age is 67 if you were born after 1960 and slightly younger if you were born earlier. If you retire early at 62, your monthly check will be 25 percent less than if you waited until you were 67. If you delay retirement beyond the age of 67, your check will grow by 8 percent for each year you keep working [source: SSA].
To start collecting Social Security retirement benefits, you need to submit an application to the Social Security Administration three months before the date you plan to retire. You can apply online at SocialSecurity.gov, call the SSA at 1-800-772-1213, or schedule an appointment at your local Social Security office. Here are the things you'll need when applying for your own retirement benefits:
- Your Social Security number
- Original or certified copy of your birth certificate; or proof of your legal immigration status if you're not a U.S. citizen
- Your most recent income tax forms (W-2 or self-employment tax return)
- Your bank name, routing number and account number for direct deposit of Social Security funds (required)
Your spouse and dependent children may also be eligible for Social Security benefits. If they'll be collecting benefits, you'll need to supply their birth certificates and Social Security numbers as well. If you're missing any of these documents, the SSA can help you get new copies.
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