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With Social Security and Medicare, Timing is Everything

By Bob Stephen and Rosa Maymi

As you’re mapping out your retirement plan, don’t forget to include Social Security and Medicare in your thought process. When it comes to enrolling in these hugely important programs, timing is everything. Enrollment doesn't usually happen at the same time, and both deserve special attention. Let’s take a close look at each.

Social Security

When You Are Eligible for Social Security Benefits

Your eligibility for full Social Security benefits depends on when you were born. Full retirement age, when you can begin collecting unreduced benefits, is 66 for current retirees. This age is gradually increasing for people born between 1954 and 1959, until it reaches age 67 for people born in 1960 or later.

You can begin receiving Social Security benefits as early as age 62. However, your benefit will be reduced permanently if you chose to claim early. Each month you wait after age 62 to claim benefits (up to age 70) increases your monthly payment. Benefits at age 70 are over 75% higher than benefits at age 62. If you are interested in making the most of your Social Security, it may pay to wait to claim benefits. For more information on how to make the most of your Social Security, go to AARP’s Social Security Benefits Calculator,

Social Security Spousal Benefits

If you’re married (or divorced but your marriage lasted at least 10 years), you may be eligible for Social Security spousal benefits. If half of your partner’s benefit is more than your full benefit, you will receive the spousal benefit. Here’s an example:

Kim’s full retirement benefit:                                     $    750/month

Her partner’s full retirement benefit:                     $  1,600/month

Kim’s spousal benefit:                                                   $    800/month

Kim will receive the spousal benefit since it is higher than her full benefit.

When to Enroll

You should apply for your benefits three months before you want to receive your first payment.  

Where To Go for More Information

For questions about Social Security, visit AARP’s Social Security Q&A tool at You can also use the AARP Social Security benefits calculator, at, to figure out the best age to claim your retirement benefits.

You can sign up for access to your Social Security estimated benefits statement at any time. Go to and click on my Social Security.


When You Are Eligible for Medicare

Most people are eligible for Medicare, the health insurance program for older Americans, at age 65. Today, more than 50 million people receive health insurance through the Medicare program.

When to Enroll

Enrollment isn’t the same for everyone. How you enroll depends on when you begin receiving Social Security benefits:

  • If you begin receiving Social Security benefits before age 65, Social Security will automatically enroll you in Medicare when you turn 65.
  • If you begin receiving Social Security benefits after age 65, you will need to enroll in Medicare yourself.


There’s an Initial Enrollment Period for Medicare, which gives you a seven-month window to enroll when you turn 65. It is the three months prior to your birth month, your birth month itself and the three months following your birth month. It’s a good idea to sign up in the three months prior to your birth month to avoid a lapse in coverage from your previous plan. If you miss your Initial Enrollment Period, you may have to pay a penalty in the form of higher premiums when you enroll later on.

If you are age 65 or over and are still working and covered by a group health plan from your employer, you might not need Medicare right away. Check with Medicare and your employer to find out how the program works with any other health insurance coverage that you may have.

After you are enrolled in Medicare, you have the opportunity each year to review your coverage to see what new benefits Medicare has to offer and to make sure your plan still works for you. You can make changes to your plan during Medicare Open Enrollment, which runs annually from October 15–December 7.

Where To Go for More Information

For answers to your questions about Medicare, visit AARP’s Medicare Q&A tool at You can get one-on-one help through your State Health Insurance Assistance Program by visiting your states website. You can also contact Medicare directly at 1-800-MEDICARE or visit

Understanding when and how to enroll in Social Security and Medicare is an important part of your overall retirement planning process. It’s worth it to take some time now to understand how these programs work. And remember, AARP is here with tools and information to help you make the most of your benefits.

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Bob Stephen is interim vice president of the AARP Education & Outreach Health team. He leads efforts on health education issues, including caregiving and living independently, Medicare, the health law, prescription drug affordability and prevention and wellness. He can be reached at .

Rosa A. Maymi is interim manager of the AARP Education & Outreach Financial Security team. She leads efforts on the topics of encore entrepreneurship, retirement decisions, fraud prevention and other financial security areas. She can be reached at .

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