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10 Things You Should Know About Social Security

Your most frequently asked questions answered

10 things you need to know about social security

What’s the maximum monthly Social Security benefit? How should I receive my payments? We answer these questions and more. — Photo by Mike Kemp/Tetra images/Getty Images

En español | Social Security provides benefits to 60.4 million Americans. Among beneficiaries age 65 and older, 23 percent of married couples and 46 percent of unmarried people rely on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their income. And 53 percent of married couples and 74 percent of unmarried persons in this age group receive 50 percent or more of their income from Social Security.

Is Social Security just for retired workers? No. As of December 2011, 19 percent of beneficiaries were disabled workers and their dependents and 11 percent were survivors (such as widows and widowers and children).

At what age can I start collecting Social Security benefits? Workers can begin receiving benefits at age 62, but your benefit will be greater if you wait until your full retirement age (currently 66) or later. Widows, widowers, surviving children, the disabled and children of the disabled can start collecting earlier. Full retirement ages are based on the year of your birth.

How do I sign up for Social Security benefits? Apply for Social Security benefits online, at your local office or by phone at 800-772-1213. To collect your full retirement benefits, apply to the Social Security Administration (SSA) three months before you wish to receive your first payment.

How long do I need to work to become eligible for benefits? If you were born in 1929 or later, you need to work at least 10 years to become eligible for Social Security. The SSA determines eligibility with a system of credits. Basically, you earn up to four credits for every year worked, and you need a total of 40 credits to qualify for Social Security.

Must I stop working to collect Social Security benefits? No, you can receive benefits while working. But, if you are younger than the full retirement age (currently 66) and earn more than a certain amount, your monthly benefits will be temporarily reduced. Once you reach full retirement age, however, your benefits will be increased to make up for what was lost.

If you're turning 66 in 2013, the amount you can earn without a reduction in benefits is $40,080. If you're younger than 66 for all of 2013, the amount you can earn without a reduction in benefits is $15,120. After you reach your full retirement age, you keep all of your benefits no matter how much you earn.

What’s the maximum monthly Social Security benefit?
For a worker retiring in 2013 at the full retirement age of 66, the highest monthly amount is $2,533. In December 2012, the average monthly Social Security benefit for a retired worker was about $1,261.

Can I receive Social Security benefits based on the earnings of a former spouse? Yes, as long as you were married for 10 years and you aren't remarried. If so, you're eligible to claim Social Security benefits under your ex-spouse's earnings if they turn out to be higher than your own.

How can I boost the amount of my Social Security check? Bottom line: The longer you wait to start collecting after you become eligible at 62, the higher the amount you will receive. For each year you delay, your Social Security benefits will increase between 7 percent and 8 percent annually up to age 70, depending on your year of birth. (See for yourself: Try the AARP Social Security Benefits Calculator.)

How should I receive my Social Security payments? Your best bet is to sign up for direct deposit into your bank account. Paper checks can get lost in the mail. The Department of Treasury did away with paper checks in March of 2013 in favor of direct deposit and debit cards.

When someone dies, how does the Social Security Administration know? The SSA receives reports of beneficiary deaths from family members, funeral homes and other government agencies. You should inform the SSA as soon as possible when a person dies.

Originally published: August 2010. Updated August 2013

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