Like many government agencies, the Social Security Administration has its own special lingo. Getting to know it can help you navigate rules and regulations and better understand your Social Security benefits. Scroll through the alphabetical list for some of the most important terms and acronyms.
Administrative law judge. A federally appointed, legally experienced official who presides over hearings and makes rulings on Social Security application and benefit decisions.
Appeal. A procedure for challenging an application or benefit decision by the Social Security Administration. If you disagree with a decision at one level, you can appeal it at the next. The appeals process has four successive steps:
- Reconsideration by a Social Security official not involved in the initial decision
- Hearing, generally with an administrative law judge
- Appeals Council review
- Federal court
Appeals Council. The Social Security Administration body that reviews appeals of rulings by administrative law judges.
Application for benefits. The form you must complete and sign to apply for Social Security benefits, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Medicare.
Authorized representative. A person you formally appoint to represent you in a Social Security benefit application or appeal. An authorized representative can attend meetings with Social Security officials, help you gather evidence to back your claim and access information in your Social Security file, among other things. Someone who is simply helping you fill out an application or other form need not be an authorized representative.
Auxiliary benefits. Benefits that go to a living wage earner's spouse and children based on the wage earner's earnings record. Also known as family benefits.
Average indexed monthly earnings (AIME). A dollar amount representing your average monthly income across your working life. It is derived by averaging up to 35 of your highest-earning years (adjusted for historical wage growth) and dividing the resulting figure by 12 to arrive at a monthly average. AIME is key to the Social Security benefit calculation.
Award letter. An official letter explaining the Social Security Administration's decision on your application for benefits. Also known as a decision notice.
Beneficiary. An individual who receives Social Security benefits.
Benefit verification letter. A document provided on request from Social Security that you can use as proof of your benefits, Supplemental Security Income or Medicare. Also known as a benefits letter, budget letter, proof-of-award letter or proof-of-income letter.
Blue Book. The Social Security Administration's online compendium of physical and mental conditions that meet the agency's definition of disability and the medical criteria that qualify someone with such a condition to receive disability benefits.
Break-even point. A calculation that can help you determine when to claim your retirement benefits, reflecting the fact that the later you begin collecting benefits, the higher your monthly payments. So, the sum total of payments you start receiving at full retirement age or later will eventually catch up with the sum of reduced monthly payments you can start getting earlier. The longer you expect to live past that break-even point, the more you could gain from delaying the start of your benefits.
Breadwinner. The individual upon whose lifetime earnings record a claim for benefits is made, including claims by spouses and other dependents. Also known as a wage earner, worker or number holder.
Child. A biological child, adopted child, stepchild or dependent grandchild who potentially qualifies for benefits based on a worker's earnings record.
Compassionate allowance. A Social Security initiative in which people with certain severe medical conditions are designated for fast-track consideration of applications for disability benefits.
Computation years. The years in which someone received earnings that are used to calculate a Social Security benefit. For retired workers, this will be their highest-paid 35 years. For disabled and deceased workers, the number of computation years could be lower, depending on the age at which they became disabled or died.
Consultative examination. A special medical examination or test that the government requests and pays for when additional information is needed to process a claim for disability benefits.
Contribution and benefit base. Also known as maximum taxable earnings, this is the amount of a person's yearly gross income that is subject to Social Security taxes, and the maximum amount of earnings that can be counted in the Social Security benefit calculation. The figure is adjusted annually based on national wage trends; in 2021 it is $142,800.
Cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). Annual change to Social Security benefits so that they keep pace with inflation. In years with little or no inflation, there may be no Social Security COLA, although this is rare.
Covered employment. Work in which you and an employer are required to pay into Social Security via payroll tax contributions. Most jobs in the U.S. economy are covered employment.
CPI-W. A consumer price index for urban wage earners and clerical workers compiled by the federal government and used to calculate annual Social Security cost-of-living-adjustments.
Death benefit. Sometimes called a “lump-sum death payment," a one-time payment of $255 to the spouse or, in some cases, child of a Social Security–covered worker who dies. The survivor must file for the lump-sum death benefit within two years of the worker's death.
Decision notice. An official letter explaining the Social Security Administration's decision on your application for benefits. Also known as an award letter or denial letter, depending on the result.
Deemed filing. A rule holding that if you are eligible for both your own retirement benefit and a spousal benefit when you file for Social Security, you are automatically deemed to be filing for both. You will receive the higher of the two benefits.
Delayed retirement credits. A boost to your retirement benefit that Social Security applies for every month between full retirement age and age 70 that you put off claiming your benefits. The credits increase your eventual benefit by 2/3 of 1 percent for each month you delay filing, which adds up to 8 percent per year.
Dependent. A family member, such as a spouse, child or grandchild, who may qualify for Social Security benefits based on a worker's earnings record.
Disability. An illness or injury that is severe enough to prevent an individual from working for at least a year or is likely to result in their death. The Social Security Administration applies this standard in determining whether someone qualifies for disability benefits.
Disability benefits. Monthly payments to an individual whose physical or mental condition meets Social Security's definition of disability. The Social Security Administration operates two such benefit programs, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
Disability Determination Service (DDS). A state agency that works closely with the Social Security Administration to review applications for disability benefits.
Disability review. A periodic medical evaluation of someone receiving disability benefits to confirm that they still qualify as disabled. A beneficiary whose condition is considered likely or possible to improve will generally get an initial review six to 18 months after becoming disabled, with follow-ups every three years thereafter.
Divorced-spouse benefit. Also called an ex-spousal benefit, a type of Social Security benefit paid to a wage earner's former husband or wife. The benefit can be up to 50 percent of the wage earner's primary insurance amount. The couple must have been married for at least 10 years for a divorced spouse to claim this benefit.
Divorced widow(er). Also called a “surviving divorced spouse," the living former spouse of a deceased worker who paid into Social Security. A divorced widow(er) may be able to collect survivor benefits on the late ex-spouse's earnings record, if the marriage lasted at least 10 years.
Dual entitlement. When you're entitled to benefits on more than one earnings record — for example, your own retirement payment and a spouse's benefit. Dual entitlement does not mean you collect the sum of both benefits. Social Security will pay only the higher amount, although it might draw from both earnings records to do so.
Earliest eligibility age (EEA). The lowest age at which individuals can apply for Social Security benefits.
- For retirement and spousal benefits, the EEA is 62.
- For widows or widowers, the EEA is 60 (50 if they are disabled), except as noted below.
- For widows or widowers with children who are under age 16 or disabled, there is no EEA.
- To apply for disability benefits, there is no EEA.
Early retirement benefits. Retirement benefits that are reduced for being claimed early, between age 62 and full retirement age. The reduction is calculated based on the number of months before full retirement age that benefits are claimed.
Earnings record. Your past earnings from covered employment that are on file with the Social Security Administration, upon which your benefit calculation is based. Also known as an earnings history.
Earnings limit. Also known as the earnings test, this is a cap on the amount of income from work people who collect retirement, spousal or survivor benefits and are under full retirement age can earn before Social Security will withhold a portion of benefits. The limits are adjusted annually. In 2021, benefits are reduced by:
- $1 for every $2 in earnings above $18,960 in the years before you reach full retirement age.
- $1 for every $3 in earnings above $50,520 during the year in which you reach full retirement age.
The earnings limit is lifted, and benefit withholding ends, in the month you reach full retirement age.
Eligible. Meeting the requirements for age, credits and relationship (such as spouse or child of a wage earner) necessary to receive a Social Security benefit. Eligibility doesn't automatically enroll you in Social Security; when eligible, you need to apply for a benefit.
Entitled. Having completed an application for Social Security benefits for which you are eligible.
Family benefits. Benefits that go to a living wage earner's spouse and children based on the wage earner's earnings record. Also known as auxiliary benefits.
Family maximum. The ceiling on benefits that can be paid collectively to family members of a wage earner on that person's earnings record, including retirement, disability, spousal, children's or survivor benefits. Also known as the maximum family benefit.