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Mary Thompson with her nieces Brandi, left, and Brianna Carlos. — David Walter Banks/Luceo

Many Americans faced with tough and unexpected life events turn to Social Security for support.  Brianna and Brandi Carlos of Camden, S.C., and John Braden of Monticello, Ga., are just two cases among the millions.

When her sister died unexpectedly from a brain aneurysm in 2004, Mary Thompson didn't think twice about taking in her two young nieces. "I love them like they're my own," says Thompson, 55, who lives in Camden, S.C. "The only thing — I was totally responsible financially, and that became hard."

But about a year after her sister's death, Thompson got some relief when she learned that her young nieces qualified for survivor benefits from Social Security. The program offers monthly payments to the dependents of workers who have died.

Almost 6.4 million Americans receive survivor benefits, including 1.9 million children who get an average of $750 monthly until they graduate from high school or age out.

In Thompson's case, each of her nieces — Brianna and Brandi Carlos, now ages 19 and 15 — qualified for about $200 each a month. The cash made all the difference to the family, which was struggling to subsist on Thompson's salary from her job as an office assistant at a bank.

"It really did help me a lot with all the things they wanted to do," says Thompson.

John Braden, 59

John Braden, 59 Kendrick Brinson/Luceo

'I didn't have to worry about medical bills, and I have two kids in college.'

After struggling with congestive heart failure for 10 years, John Braden hit his limit in fall 2008. Doctors placed the then 57-year-old from Monticello, Ga., on a heart transplant list and started round-the-clock medication.

Braden was unable to keep up with the physical demands of his engineering job as his body failed him. He received a new heart in November 2009. His paychecks stopped coming, but Braden was able to support his family, thanks to monthly checks from Social Security disability insurance. People who, like Braden, cannot work due to injury or illness may qualify for such payments if they have a minimum number of work credits, recently had a job, and have met certain medical criteria. About 8 million Americans draw SSDI benefits, averaging $1,066 monthly.

"Social Security made a huge difference," says Braden. "I didn't have to worry about medical bills, and I have two kids in college and we could still do for them."

The payments gave the father of four peace of mind until he was able to return to work earlier this year.

Michelle Diament is a frequent contributor to the AARP Bulletin.

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