Q. I'm almost 65 and am going to apply for my Social Security and Medicare benefits. I've been told the easiest way is to apply online on the Social Security website. Is this true?
A. Applying online is probably easier than doing it by telephone or going to your local Social Security office. All you have to do is use your computer to go to the Social Security website. When you reach the first page, click on the words: "Apply online for retirement benefits."
Filling out your retirement application, Social Security says, can take as little as 15 minutes. And you can do it anytime, day or night, without leaving your home or office.
If you're within four months of age 65, your application for Social Security will also serve as your application for Medicare. If you don't want to start retirement benefits yet, you can use the application to sign up just for Medicare.
Patty Duke applies for benefits
If you file online, you'll be in good company. Stage, screen and TV actress Patty Duke recently celebrated her 65th birthday by going online to file for Social Security and Medicare benefits. As you'll see if you watch this video, Duke had a bit of help from her husband, Michael Pearce, but her application took only a few minutes to complete.
For the past three years, Duke has volunteered her time to promote Social Security's online services in a series of public service announcements.
When is the best time to apply?
Social Security recommends that, whenever possible, people file for Medicare benefits three months before their 65th birthday. Medicare benefits begin at 65.
As for choosing a time to take Social Security, you can begin anytime between 62 and 70. Duke took hers at 65, a year before she would have reached her full retirement age of 66. That resulted in a small reduction in her benefits.
Online applications up
In fiscal year 2011, nearly 41 percent of retirement claims were filed online — up from 37 percent in 2010.
Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue was particularly happy with Duke's retirement decision. "All of us at Social Security wish Patty a very happy birthday," Astrue said.
For more information on when to claim your benefits, go to the AARP Benefits Calculator.
You may also like: A quiz to test your Social Security smarts.
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.