Documents to Collect Before You Apply for Social Security | Social Security


If you’re getting ready to apply for Social Security benefits, spending some time gathering the paperwork you’ll need can help streamline the process. You’ll be able to readily provide the information requested when filling out a Social Security application. The Social Security Administration will need to verify the year you were born, for instance, along with proof of your U.S. citizenship and identity.

Gather these documents before you apply for Social Security:

  • Birth certificate.
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship.
  • Social Security card.
  • Identification card.
  • A copy of a W-2 tax form or self-employment tax return from the previous year.
  • Spousal records.
  • A copy of military service papers, if you served before 1968.

Use the following guidelines to help you determine if the original records are needed, what type of documents will be accepted and how to replace missing information.

A Birth Certificate

The SSA will typically request a birth certificate to prove your age. “Usually this is an original or certified copy,” says Christine O’Donnell, a retirement planning strategist and president of CR O’Donnell & Associates in Castle Pines, Colorado.

If your birth certificate is missing, there are ways to get a replacement. You can contact the vital records office in the state where you were born to request a copy of your birth certificate. The office will likely ask you to provide certain information before sending you a replacement. If you were born abroad to parents who were U.S. citizens, they likely registered your birth at the U.S. embassy or consulate in the country where they were living at the time. In that case, you can ask for a copy of the report of birth abroad from the U.S. Department of State. If you were born on a military base located overseas, you may be able to contact the hospital where you were born to ask about a birth certificate copy.

Proof of U.S. Citizenship

In addition to checking that your age makes you eligible for Social Security benefits, the SSA will want to ensure you are a U.S. citizen. If you have a U.S. birth certificate, this can be used to establish your citizenship. If not, a U.S. passport can be used to establish proof. This documentation must be provided as an original record or a copy certified by the issuing agency. Photocopies or notarized copies won’t be accepted.

Social Security Card

You’ll need to provide your Social Security number to receive retirement benefits. If you don’t have a Social Security card, you may be able to replace it through the SSA website. To do this, you need to create a my Social Security account at Once you have established the account, you might be allowed to request a replacement Social Security card online, depending on the state where you live. People in most states can request a replacement card online, but several areas do not have this option. Residents of Minnesota, New Hampshire, Nevada, Oklahoma and West Virginia are not eligible to replace a Social Security card online.

If you live in a state that makes it possible to request a Social Security replacement card online, you’ll need to have a U.S. mailing address to make the request. In most states, you’ll also be required to have a driver’s license or state-issued identification card. In Alaska, Delaware and Wisconsin, you’ll need a driver’s license to make the request.

Identification Card

To prove your identity, you can show one of several documents. A U.S. driver’s license, a state-issued non-driver identification card or a U.S. passport can be used for your identity verification. If you don’t have one of these documents, you can use a U.S. military identification card, an employee identification card, a school identification card or a health insurance card.

Employment Records

When filling out an application, you’ll need to have a copy of your W-2 forms from the prior year. If you are self-employed, the SSA requires a copy of your self-employment tax return from the previous year. You don’t need to provide the originals of these documents.

Spousal Records

If you are applying for a Social Security spousal benefit, you may be asked for certain documents to show proof of marriage. “Those documents will likely be a photo ID, your birth certificate and your marriage license,” says Brannon Lambert, owner of Canvasback Wealth Management in Raleigh, North Carolina. If you don’t have the marriage license, you can ask for a replacement from the register of deeds in the county where you were married. Individuals applying for a spousal benefit on a former spouse’s record will also be required to show divorce papers. Replacements for divorce papers can be requested at county offices where the divorce took place.

If you are applying for a Social Security survivor benefit, you may need to show a copy of your spouse’s death certificate, along with his or her Social Security number. If you don’t have a death certificate, you can contact the vital records office in the county where the death occurred.

Military Service Documentation

If you served in the military before 1968, the SSA will ask you to provide a copy of your U.S. military service papers. This could involve copies of documents such as a certificate of release or discharge from active duty.

During the application process, you may be asked to send in some of the documents listed above to the SSA. All documents, including original records and photocopies, will be returned to you, unless you specifically ask the SSA not to return a document.

If you are in the process of getting your documents compiled but don’t have everything you need yet, you can still start the application process. “Social Security representatives may be able to help you get them or you can supply them later,” says Mark Falter, president of Mid-American Wealth Advisory Group in Kansas City, Missouri. “The payments start from when you begin the process of applying, not when you have all the required documentation.”

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