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Social Security Mailbox

Understanding the Different Kinds of Social Security Benefits

Retirement is best known, but these payments also help spouses, children and the disabled

Q: How do benefits work for disability?

A: One of the unfortunate facts of American life is that 1 out of 4 of today's 20-year-olds will become disabled before they reach retirement age. However, it's not easy to win approval for disability benefits. Social Security's definition of disability is quite strict — the condition must be severe enough to last for at least a year or to end in death.

If you apply online, you'll be asked to fill out several questionnaires electronically. You'll need medical reports that support your claim.

All claims begin with a five-month waiting period, which is followed by a review process that typically requires about 100 days for a decision. If you're turned down, you can then begin an appeal that may take as much as a year for a final verdict.

Q: What about SSI benefits? Are they provided by Social Security?

A: Social Security administers SSI (it stands for Supplemental Security Income), but the money doesn't come from the Social Security taxes that workers pay. It comes from general tax revenue. And the program is "means-tested" — only certain people with low income qualify.

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SSI benefits may be available to people 65 and older who fall within strict financial limits. That's in addition to any Social Security you may qualify for. Disabled adults and children who have limited incomes and resources may also qualify. Generally, resources must be less than $2,000 for an individual and $3,000 for a couple. When valuing your assets, Social Security counts bank accounts, cash, stocks and bonds but not your home or your car, or small life insurance policies, burial plots and burial funds.

Q: How do I apply?

A: You can apply for many types on the Social Security Administration website. Or call the agency's toll-free phone number, 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778).

Stan Hinden, a former columnist for the Washington Post, wrote How to Retire Happy: The 12 Most Important Decisions You Must Make Before You Retire. Have a question? Check out the Social Security Mailbox archive. If you don't find your answer there, send an email to the Social Security Mailbox.

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