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Do You Have a Computer and 15 Minutes?

If so, that's about all you'll need to complete a Social Security application.

So you’re ready to sign up for Social Security. But you’re having nightmares, anticipating hours on the computer, on the phone or in line at the Social Security office.

Sleep easy. Starting today, the Social Security Administration is offering a new system with the enthusiastic promise that you can “Retire Online. It’s So Easy!”

A revised online application makes filing for Social Security benefits significantly faster and simpler. It takes just 12 to 15 minutes to fill out the form, compared with the 45 minutes it took with the previous version, according to Michael Astrue, commissioner of Social Security.

“The application was too long, too unwieldy and too difficult for the general public to use,” Astrue says.

The new form utilizes so-called plain language to help make clear what information is requested, and it directs applicants only to questions that apply to their particular situation, based on their responses to previous questions. And the new form is shorter, partly because it incorporates information already obtained by other government agencies, such as the Veterans Administration.

Simplification means that the vast majority of applicants will be able to complete their entire application online. Before March 2008, all applicants had to produce an original copy of their birth certificate by mail or in person at a Social Security field office, a requirement that has been eliminated for many.

Ads featuring actress Patty Duke, who recently turned 62, will promote the online system. To drum up enthusiasm for retiring online, Duke reprises the characters Patty and Cathy Lane from the hit 1960s sitcom The Patty Duke Show.

It is expected that 1 million people will use the new form in 2009, up from 750,000 in 2008. Nearly 80 million boomers will become eligible for Social Security over the next two decades.

The updated application is just one of several improvements that the SSA is making to its online presence. Last summer the administration launched an online retirement estimator to help people determine when they should start drawing their benefits. And a revised online form for disability benefits is expected later this year.

More than 51 million Americans will receive about $650 billion in Social Security benefits this year. According to 2008 statistics, 50.8 million people received Social Security, including about 35 million retirees and their dependents, 6.5 million survivors and 9.2 million people with disabilities and their dependents. The average monthly payment for retirees was $1,089.


Michelle Diament is a freelance writer based in Memphis.

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