§ A 100. The Need to File an Application – Social Security


Filing an application is a precondition to Social Security benefit entitlement and also to recognition of a period of disability which will later be considered in benefit calculations. There are only two situations in which the Act does not require an application. One is where a person who is receiving one type of Social Security benefits becomes eligible for another. A person who applied for and was receiving disability insurance benefits need not, when he or she reaches the Act's "full retirement age," apply again for old-age benefits; a person receiving spouse benefits on the account of a retired worker need not apply for widow or widower's benefits if that worker dies.

The Act provides a second exception; it operates when misleading information received from the Social Security Administration causes a person not to apply. A later application by that person can be dated from the earlier contact. Previous law was to the contrary. In Schweiker v. Hansen, 450 U.S. 785 (1981), the Supreme Court held that the Agency was not estopped from denying benefits to a claimant who failed to file an application even though her failure to do so was the result of an erroneous statement by Agency staff.

An applicant for Social Security benefits of any kind must furnish satisfactory proof of an existing Social Security number or apply for one.

Eligible claimants can in many cases elect to have benefits paid for a period of months (6 months or 12 months depending on benefit type) prior to the month of application. Generally this election is not available when payment of benefits for the prior period would, because of the claimant's age, give rise to a reduction in the monthly benefit amount.

The requirement that an individual apply for benefits puts the timing of benefits in his or her control. Since the monthly amount received by those entitled to retirement benefits, benefits for surviving spouses, and benefits for spouses of individuals receiving retirement benefits is, in many cases, affected by the age at which benefits are begun, deciding whether to file an application at the earliest possible date or delay benefits by putting it off can be complicated. It can become even more complicated for those who are eligible for more than one type of benefit, most commonly retirement and surviving spouse benefits. While an application for one type is generally treated as an application for all benefits to which the individual is entitled, there are circumstances under which the applicant can limit the initial application to one type and may find it advantageous to do so. This is, however, not an option for an individual eligible for retirement benefits and wife or husband benefits who applies prior to his or her full retirement age.

In 2010, reversing prior policy the Agency severely limited application withdrawals. Previously, individuals could apply for retirement benefits, begin receiving them, and later, without limit in time, withdraw their applications upon repayment of all benefits received (without interest). Since this could be manipulated so as to amount to an interest-free loan, the Agency issued new regulations limiting application withdrawals by retirees to one per lifetime and that within the first 12 months after entitlement. The same regulations restrict retrospective suspension of benefits by recipients which could be used to the same effect. See 75 Fed. Reg. 76,256 (Dec. 8, 2010).

Prior to a change of Agency policy in 2011, a new application for disability benefits could be pursued while the appeal of a prior denial was progressing. SSR No. 11-11p reversed that position. Under the new policy "If [a claimant] want[s] to file a new disability claim under the same title and of the same type as a disability claim pending at any level of administrative review, [the claimant] will have to choose between pursuing ... administrative review rights on the pending disability claim or declining to pursue further administrative review and filing a new application."

See generally SSA, When To Start Receiving Retirement Benefits.

Rev. 4/15

  • Supporting and Elaborating References
  • Related Sections:
    • Part 1
      § 161. Old-Age Benefits - Entitlement
      § 190. How Disability Affects Non-Disability Benefits
      § 220. Benefits for the Surviving Spouse of a Deceased Worker - Entitlement
      § 230. Benefits for the Surviving Child of a Deceased Worker - Entitlement
      § 240. Benefits for the Surviving Parents of a Deceased Worker - Entitlement
      § 250. Benefits for the Spouse of an Old-Age or Disability Benefits Recipient - Entitlement
      § 260. Benefits for the Child of an Old-Age or Disability Benefits Recipient - Entitlement
      § 400. Steps in Presenting or Appealing a Benefit Claim
    • Part 2
      § A 250. SSI - The Need to File an Application
      § E 100. Effect of Misleading Agency Information or Advice
      § N 500. Claim for a Period of Disability Earnings Record Freeze Apart From Benefit Claim