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Question: How do I know when it’s the right time for me to begin getting retirement benefits?

Answer: If you use our online Retirement Estimator, you can get estimates of your benefit at various ages from age 62, the earliest eligibility age, to age 70, the age when you can take full advantage of delayed retirement credits. It allows you to key in multiple scenarios so you can get an instant, personalized estimate of your future retirement benefits. It’s the best way to begin planning for your retirement. You can find the online Retirement Estimator at www.socialsecurity.gov/estimator.

Q: What is the benefit amount a spouse may be entitled to receive?

A: If you are eligible for both your own retirement benefit and for benefits as a spouse, we will always pay you benefits based on your record first. If your benefit as a spouse is higher than your retirement benefit, you will receive a combination of benefits equaling the higher spouse’s benefits. A spouse generally receives one-half of the retired worker’s full benefit unless the spouse begins collecting benefits before full retirement age. If the spouse begins collecting benefits before full retirement age, the amount of the spouse’s benefit is reduced by a percentage based on the number of months before he or she reaches full retirement age. For example, based on the full retirement age of 66, if a spouse begins collecting benefits:

-At age 65, the benefit amount would be about 46 percent of the retired worker’s full benefit;

-At age 64, it would be about 42 percent;

-At age 63, 37.5 percent; and

-At age 62, 35 percent.

However, if a spouse is taking care of a child who is either under age 16 or disabled and receives Social Security benefits on the same record, a spouse will get full benefits, regardless of age. Learn more by reading our Retirement publication at www.socialsecurity.gov/pubs/10035.html.

Q: Is it true I must now receive my benefits through direct deposit?

A: Anyone applying for benefits on or after May 1, 2011, will be required to receive their payments electronically, while those already receiving paper checks will need to switch by March 1, 2013. Paper checks will no longer be an option for most people. If you don’t have a bank account, you can get your benefits through the Direct Express debit Mastercard. Switching from checks to electronic payments is fast, easy, and free at www.godirect.org. You also can call the U.S. Treasury Processing Center’s toll-free helpline at 1-800-333-1795 or speak with a bank or credit union representative or contact Social Security for help.

Q: I’m getting a summer job and I can’t find my Social Security card. Do I need to get a new one?

A: Ask your potential employer if he or she needs to see the card or if just the number is required. Knowing your number is usually what is important. If you do need to get a replacement card, come to your local Social Security office or Social Security Card Center and show us documents proving your identity and, possibly, citizenship. You can go to www.socialsecurity.gov/ssnumber for more specific information about the process of getting a new card and where to take your information. At that website, you can also download a copy of the simple application to have pre-filled when you visit.

(C) 2011 McClatchy-Tribune News Service. All Rights Reserved.