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  • Writer's pictureChris Stein, CFP®

Filing for Social Security Benefits Retroactively

I recently received a question about filing retroactively for Social Security benefits:

Am I eligible for one or six months of retroactive Social Security retirement benefits? Here are my circumstances: I was born in 1947, so I reached Full Retirement Age in 2013 but did not file. I was released from incarceration in January 2019. I filed for benefits in March 2019 and was told that my March and April benefits would be paid in May. Since so much time has passed since 2013, can I claim the maximum six months retroactively? Or does the incarceration affect my ability to claim retroactively?

Filing for Benefits Retroactively

Once you pass your Full Retirement Age (FRA), you can file for benefits retroactively with certain limitations. You are basically asking to backdate your application for benefits for months gone by in case you forgot, were delayed, or just wish you had claimed earlier.

You can request up to a maximum of six months of retroactive benefits, but can only go back as far as your FRA. For example, if you are at FRA plus one month, you can only claim one extra month, not six. And even if you have gone more than six months past your FRA, you can still only go back six months.

Social Security will activate your benefits starting from your filing month, and those payments will arrive in a month or two. Social Security will also send you a lump sum payment for however many months of backdating are authorized.

How Incarceration Affects Social Security

Most Social Security benefits are suspended “if an otherwise eligible person is confined in a jail, prison, or other penal institution for more than 30 continuous days due to the conviction of a crime.” This counts whether you are first filing for, or are already receiving, benefits.

How This Affects You

You filed in March, after being released in January, so you were eligible for Social Security benefits starting in February. However, although more than six months had passed since your FRA, your incarceration affected your right to the maximum of six months. Here is why:

Filing retroactively is like pretending you came into Social Security six months earlier and filed. However, six months before you filed in March, you were incarcerated. You also have to have been eligible to receive Social Security benefits back when you want the application to take effect, and you were not. So, Social Security will not allow you to backdate to then.

However, you can file retroactively to one month. You will receive a ‘catch-up’ payment for that month and, from then on, your benefits will flow normally.

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