En español | For many people, Social Security's function begins and ends with a monthly payment. And to be sure, ensuring benefits get delivered on time and in full to tens of millions of older adults, people with disabilities and members of their families 12 times a year is the agency's job one.
But over its history, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has added numerous special services to help customers (that's you and me) deal with pressing medical, familial and financial issues. Here are some of the lesser-known things Social Security can do for you.
1. Expedited disability claims
As of late 2021, the average processing time for a Social Security disability claim was more than five months. And that's just the initial application; it can take many more months, even years, to appeal a claim that's first denied.
Waits like that can be especially hard for people with severe or worsening illnesses. That's why the SSA established the Compassionate Allowances program, a list of more than 250 serious medical conditions that by definition meet Social Security's standard for disability. Applications for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) involving those conditions are automatically flagged for fast-tracking and can be approved in a matter of days.
Learn more about Compassionate Allowances and other ways Social Security can fast-track disability decisions.
2. Representative payees
Not all Social Security recipients are able to manage their own benefit payments. Some have cognitive disorders or developmental disabilities; some are small children. In such cases, Social Security can appoint someone to serve as the beneficiary's representative payee.
A representative payee has authority to receive another person's benefits and use them to meet that person's essential needs, such as food, shelter and health care. It's typically a family member or friend, but organizations such as nursing homes can also fill the role. It's a serious job that requires diligence: Social Security holds payees accountable for how they spend benefit funds, and they are strictly prohibited from putting the money to their own use.
Learn more about how to become and serve as a Social Security representative payee.
3. Help with Medicare drug costs
Extra Help, a program run by Social Security and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), can reduce prescription drug expenses for low-income Medicare beneficiaries by an estimated $5,100 a year. The aid can be put toward premiums, deductibles and copays related to a Medicare drug plan.
The program is open to residents of the 50 states and the District of Columbia who are enrolled in Medicare Part A and/or Medicare Part B and have income of no more than $20,385 for an individual or $27,465 for a married couple living together. There are also strict limits on financial assets such as savings, investments and property other than your primary residence.
Learn more about the Extra Help program.
4. Translation and interpretation
Like everyone else, people who speak little or no English may need to talk to the staff at Social Security about benefits or other concerns. To address this, Social Security provides free interpreter services to anyone who requests or shows a need for language assistance.
Languages that the agency can translate on a phone call or office visit include Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, Farsi, French, Greek, Haitian Creole, Hmong, Italian, Korean, Portuguese, Polish, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese. To request an interpreter, call Social Security at 800-772-1213. SSA also provides written materials in several languages on its website.
Learn more about Social Security services for people with limited English proficiency.
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5. International Social Security agreements
Many Americans work in foreign countries, and many foreign nationals work in the United States. People in either situation may be subject to dual payroll taxation: having to pay into two countries’ retirement systems from the same wages.
To minimize that risk, Social Security has negotiated agreements with 30 countries that have comparable programs for retirees. These pacts generally provide for workers to pay payroll taxes to only one country's retirement system at a time. They also allow workers covered by the agreements to pool credits they've earned from employment in more than one country, to ensure they qualify for retirement benefits in the country where they claim them.
Learn more about how Social Security's international agreements work.
6. Proof of income
Applying for a loan, or for a government benefit like food stamps or housing assistance, requires proving your income is high enough to make you a good credit risk or low enough to make you eligible for aid. If that income includes Social Security benefits, you can get the evidence you need in minutes via SSA's online My Social Security service.
With a My Social Security account, you can quickly customize, download and print a copy of your benefit verification letter, which serves as proof of your Social Security income. You can also use your account to review your earnings history, check current or future benefits, order a replacement Social Security or Medicare card, and access other Social Security services.
Learn more about getting a benefit verification letter.
7. Benefits for grandchildren
Nearly 3 million children in the United States are being raised by a grandparent or grandparents, according to a study published in the September 2020 issue of the journal Pediatrics. Many of them may be eligible for Social Security benefits on the basis of that relationship.
Generally, if you are providing at least half of a minor grandchild's financial support, and the natural parents are deceased, disabled or otherwise unable to regularly contribute to that support, the child can collect dependent or survivor benefits when you retire, become disabled or die. If you are already on Social Security when a grandchild comes into your care, you must legally adopt the child for him or her to receive benefits on your record.
Learn more about Social Security benefits for grandchildren.
8. Baby names galore
The SSA is there for new parents, who can apply for baby's Social Security number before they even leave the hospital. (And it's a good idea to do so: You'll need the number to claim the child as a dependent on your next tax return and get him or her medical coverage, among other things.)
A delightful byproduct of this early involvement is that Social Security is the go-to resource for all things baby name. The SSA famously releases an annual list of the most popular choices (Olivia has been the No. 1 girl's name since 2019; Liam has led the way for boys since 2017), but its baby names index also lets you search for top names by year, decade and state and see how your own handle (or any other) has held up over time. It's a treasure trove of ideas for naming your newborn, and of cultural data for nomenclature nerds.
Learn more about how to get a Social Security number for a new baby.
Editor's note: This article, originally published Sept. 10, 2020, has been updated with more recent information.
Andy Markowitz is a contributing writer and editor for AARP, covering Social Security and fraud. He is a former editor of The Prague Post and Baltimore City Paper.