Nearly one out of six persons in this country receives monthly Social Security benefits. If you are retired or disabled, a spouse or dependent of such a person, a widow, widower or a dependent of a deceased worker, or even a divorced spouse of someone entitled to benefits, you might qualify for some type of Social Security benefits. Some of the benefits have an age requirement; some do not.
Social Security benefits are financed through payroll taxes paid by workers, their employers and by the self-employed. Before you or your family receives Social Security benefits, one of you must have credit for a certain amount of work covered and taxed under Social Security. You must have “insured status.”
The number of work credits you must have in order to receive benefits depends on the type of benefits you apply for. You need a certain number of work credits, also referred to as “quarters of coverage,” to be insured and entitled to benefits.
If you have the necessary work credits, you can receive retirement benefits when you reach Social Security retirement age, or a reduced amount at age 62. For those born before 1937, full retirement benefits are available at age 65. Persons born later must work longer to claim full retirement, up to age 66 or 67 for those born after 1959. If you chose to begin receiving benefits before the full retirement age that applies to you, your benefits are permanently reduced. (For the exact amount of reduction, contact your Social Security office.)
The amount of your benefits depends on your average earnings over a period of years. Benefits may be increased from year to year to keep pace with cost-of-living increases. You can work and still receive retirement benefits, though the amount of your check will be reduced if your wages exceed limits established by law. Once you reach full retirement age, however, there is no limit on the amount of income you earn.
A worker who becomes severely disabled before reaching retirement age can receive disability checks. Under Social Security, you are considered disabled if you have a severe physical or mental condition preventing you from working, and it is expected to last (or has lasted) for at least 12 months, or is expected to result in death. You are eligible to receive benefits after five full months of your disability. You must be unable to perform your past work or any other substantial gainful activity. Your age, education and specific limitations must be evaluated in determining your ability to perform other work activity. Once benefits start, they will continue as long as you are disabled. Social Security benefits are not available if alcohol or drug abuse is a strong contributing factor to your disability. If, however, you are collecting disability benefits and you have earnings from work over a certain amount that continue more than nine months, you may be considered no longer disabled. Other rules apply to work when you are disabled, too. Your Social Security office can explain them. If you receive disability benefits before you reach retirement age, your disability benefits will automatically convert to retirement benefits at age 65.
Monthly checks are paid to certain dependents of a worker who has retired, become disabled or died. The amount of benefits paid to a worker’s family is based on the worker’s average earnings. There is a limit on the amount one family can get in total benefits.
A child, wife or husband, or divorced spouse of a retired or disabled worker may be entitled to Social Security benefits based on the worker’s earnings. Survivors of a deceased worker may also qualify, and benefits can be paid to widows, widowers, surviving divorced spouses and children. To find out if you are eligible for any of these benefits, contact your local Social Security office.
No Social Security benefits are paid automatically. To get any type of benefit for yourself or your family, you MUST apply at a local Social Security office. Do not delay applying for benefits, since back payments may be limited or even prohibited in some situations. Before you want your benefits to start, contact your Social Security office for instructions. You have a right to apply for any and all benefits and to have a decision made on your application.
If you feel that any decision made on your claim for benefits is incorrect, you have a right to appeal that decision. It is important that you request an appeal promptly after receiving notice of the decision, as the time in which to appeal is short. Make your request for appeal in writing as soon as you are notified of a decision you think is incorrect. Local Social Security office representatives will explain how to appeal and will help you make appeal requests.
You have a right to be represented by a person of your choice in any disputes about your claim. Getting legal help for an appeal can be quite helpful. A legal aid program may be able to help you at no charge. Private attorneys who help with appeals cannot charge for their services. If you win your appeal, they may be able to get a percentage of your past-due benefits.
Legal editor: Janay Haas, July 2009