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Social Security A to Z Glossary

Everything you need to know about the program that provides benefits to so many


Child: A biological child, adopted child, stepchild or dependent grandchild who is potentially qualified for benefits based on a worker's earnings record. The Social Security Administration is guided by state inheritance laws in resolving questions about a child's legal status.

Claim and suspend: A strategy for married couples to maximize benefits. At full retirement age, the main breadwinner files for benefits and then suspends the claim, enabling the spouse (age 62-plus) to get spousal benefits. Later, when the breadwinner claims the suspended benefits, those benefits have grown because of delayed retirement credits. Also known as file and suspend.

COLA: See cost-of-living adjustment (COLA).

Compassionate allowance: A Social Security Administration initiative in which certain extreme conditions are designated for fast-track consideration for disability benefits.

Computation years: The years with earnings used to calculate a Social Security benefit. For retired workers, this will be the highest 35 years of earnings. For the disabled and those who die, the number of computation years could be lower.

Consultative examination: A medical exam by a government-paid health care specialist who advises an administrative law judge determining whether an applicant qualifies for disability benefits.

Contribution and benefit base: See taxable maximum.

Cost-of-living adjustment (COLA): Annual adjustment in Social Security benefits so that they keep pace with inflation. Cost-of-living adjustments may not be made in years with little or no inflation.

Covered employment: Work in which you and an employer are required to make Social Security payroll tax contributions. Most jobs in the U.S. economy are covered employment.

Credits: Units that count toward entitlement for Social Security benefits, based on earnings in covered employment. You can earn up to four credits a year. Social Security awards one credit for every quarter in which you earn a certain amount ($1,160 in 2013). Generally, 40 credits — which you can accumulate in 10 years of covered employment — is enough to qualify for retirement benefits. Also known as work credits or quarters of coverage.


DDS: See Disability Determination Service (DDS).

Decision letter: An official letter from the Social Security Administration explaining its decision on your disability benefits and, if benefits are payable, spelling out the amount you will get each month.

Delayed retirement credits: Social Security benefits are increased by a certain percentage (depending on your date of birth) if you delay claiming retirement benefits until after you reach full retirement age. Delayed retirement credits are awarded up to age 70.

Dependent: A family member who may qualify for benefits based on a worker's earnings record with the Social Security Administration. Dependents include a spouse, children and potentially others.

Dependent benefits: See auxiliary benefits.

Disability benefits: Benefits awarded to individuals under full retirement age who have physical or mental impairments that are severe enough to prevent them from doing "substantial" work for a year or more or a condition that is expected to result in death.

Disability Determination Service (DDS): The state agency that works closely with the Social Security Administration to review applications for disability benefits.

Dual entitlement: When you're entitled to benefits on more than one earnings record, such as your own and that of a spouse.

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