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Social Security Mailbox

Benefits at 70, Medicare at 65

If you sign up late for Medicare, you may pay a penalty — unless you're covered by another plan

En español | Q. In September, I'll be 65 years old. Since I plan on working until 70, I've decided to delay taking my Social Security benefits until then. Is there a website or phone number I can use to tell Social Security about my decision?

A. Actually, there's no need to tell Social Security anything about your retirement plans until you're ready to sign up. A few months before your 70th birthday, apply for benefits and specify the date you want them to begin.

See also: 10 things you should know about Social Security.

In the meantime, you can fine-tune your plans by using the new AARP Social Security Benefits Calculator, which estimates dollar amounts and helps in decisions on when exactly to begin benefits.

What is much more urgent is the deadline you now face concerning Medicare. When you turn 65, you'll become eligible for the federal health insurance program, and you have to make some important decisions promptly, or risk paying higher premiums for the rest of your life.

Medicare has several parts, including Part B, which is optional and covers doctors bills. It has premiums that begin at $96.40 a month. Another premium-based optional program, Part D, covers prescription drug costs.

You can apply for Medicare by calling Social Security at 1-800-772-1213 or apply online. Social Security recommends that you apply three months before your 65th birthday. You then will have only three months after your birthday month to complete your enrollment.

If you don't apply within the designated time period, you could end up paying a Part B penalty of 10 percent for each 12-month period that you were eligible but did not enroll.

But if you're covered by a health insurance plan through your job or your spouse's job, or meet other rare conditions, Social Security will let you postpone your application for Part B until a later date, with no premium penalties.

Part D also has potential penalties for late enrollment.

For more information on these very complicated timetables and decisions, go to the Social Security website's advisory on signing up for Medicare.

Also helpful is the Bulletin's recently published Medicare Starter Kit, a comprehensive — and friendly — guide to help you get your head around the many things you need to know about the program.

You may also like: Join the Social Security community group. >>

Stan Hinden, a former columnist for the Washington Post, wrote How to Retire Happy: The 12 Most Important Decisions You Must Make Before You Retire. Have a question for the Social Security Mailbox? Check out the archive. If you don't find your answer there, send a query.

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