Social Security Benefits & Retirement


Nearly 45 million people today receive some form of Social Security benefits, including 90 percent of retired workers over age 65. But Social Security is more than just a retirement program. Its scope has expanded to include other benefits as well, such as disability, family, and survivor's benefits.

How Does Social Security Work?

The Social Security system is based on a simple premise: Throughout your career, you pay a portion of your earnings into a trust fund by paying Social Security or self-employment taxes. Your employer, if any, contributes an equal amount. In return, you receive certain benefits that can provide income to you when you need it most-at retirement or when you become disabled, for instance. Your family members can receive benefits based on your earnings record, too. The amount of benefits that you and your family members receive depends on several factors, including your average lifetime earnings, your date of birth, and the type of benefit that you're applying for.

Your earnings and the taxes you pay are reported to the Social Security Administration (SSA) by your employer, or if you are self-employed, by the Internal Revenue Service. The SSA uses your Social Security number to track your earnings and your benefits.

Finding out what earnings have been reported to the SSA and what benefits you can expect to receive is easy. Just check out your Social Security Statement, mailed by the SSA annually to anyone age 25 or older whois not already receiving Social Security benefits. You'll receive this statement each year about three months before your birthday. It summarizes your earnings record and estimates the retirement, disability, and survivor's benefits that you and your family members may be eligible to receive. You can also order a statement at the SSA website, at your local SSA office, or by calling (800) 772-1213.

Social Security Eligibility

When you work and pay Social Security taxes, you earn credits that enable you to qualify for Social Security benefits. You can earn up to 4 credits per year, depending on the amount of income that you have. Most people must build up 40 credits (10 years of work) to be eligible for Social Security retirement benefits, but need fewer credits to be eligible for disability benefits or for their family members to be eligible for survivor's benefits.
Your Retirement Benefits

If you were born before 1938, you will be eligible for full retirement benefits at age 65. If you were born in 1938 or later, the age at which you are eligible for full retirement benefits will be different. That's because full retirement age is gradually increasing to age 67.

But you don't have to wait until full retirement age to begin receiving benefits. No matter what your full retirement age, you can begin receiving early retirement benefits at age 62. Doing so is often advantageous: Although you'll receive a reduced benefit if you retire early, you'll receive benefits for a longer period than someone who retires at full retirement age.

You can also choose to delay receiving retirement benefits past full retirement age. If you delay retirement, the Social Security benefit that you eventually receive will be as much as 6 to 8 percent higher. That's because you'll receive a delayed retirement credit for each month that you delay receiving retirement benefits, up to age 70. The amount of this credit varies, depending on your year of birth.

Disability Benefits

If you become disabled, you may be eligible for Social Security disability benefits. The SSA defines disability as a physical or mental condition severe enough to prevent a person from performing substantial work of any kind for at least a year. This is a strict definition of disability, so if you're only temporarily disabled, don't expect to receive Social Security disability benefits--benefits won't begin until the sixth full month after the onset of your disability. And because processing your claim may take some time, apply for disability benefits as soon as you realize that your disability will be long term.

Click here for more specific details on Social Security Disability.

Family Benefits

If you begin receiving retirement or disability benefits, your family members might also be eligible to receive benefits based on your earnings record. Eligible family members may include:

• Your spouse age 62 or older, if married at least 1 year
• Your former spouse age 62 or older, if you were married at least 10 years
• Your spouse or former spouse at any age, if caring for your child who is under age 16 or disabled
• Your children under age 18, if unmarried
• Your children under age 19, if full-time students (through grade 12) or disabled
• Your children older than 18, if severely disabled

Each family member may receive a benefit that is as much as 50 percent of your benefit. However, the amount that can be paid each month to a family is limited. The total benefit that your family can receive based on your earnings record is about 150 to 180 percent of your full retirement benefit amount. If the total family benefit exceeds this limit, each family member's benefit will be reduced proportionately. Your benefit won't be affected.

Survivor's Benefits

When you die, your family members may qualify for survivor's benefits based on your earnings record. These family members include:

• Your widow(er) or ex-spouse age 60 or older (or age 50 or older if disabled)
• Your widow(er) or ex-spouse at any age, if caring for your child who is under under 16 or disabled
• Your children under 18, if unmarried
• Your children under age 19, if full-time students (through grade 12) or disabled
• Your children older than 18, if severely disabled
• Your parents, if they depended on you for at least half of their support

Your widow(er) or children may also receive a one-time $255 death benefit immediately after you die.

Applying For Social Security Benefits

You can apply for Social Security benefits in person at your local Social Security office. You can also begin the process by calling (800) 772-1213 or by filling out an on-line application on the Social Security website. The SSA suggests that you contact its representative the year before the year you plan to retire, to determine when you should apply and begin receiving benefits. If you're applying for disability or survivor's benefits, apply as soon as you are eligible.

Depending on the type of Social Security benefits that you are applying for, you will be asked to furnish certain records, such as a birth certificate, W-2 forms, and verification of your Social Security number and citizenship. The documents must be original or certified copies. If any of your family members are applying for benefits, they will be expected to submit similar documentation. The SSA representative will let you know which documents you need and help you get any documents you don't already have.

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