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10 Things To Know About Social Security

Your most frequently asked questions answered

10 Things You Should Know About Social Security

Photo by Mike Kemp/Tetra images/Getty Images

Social Security can be complicated — here are answers to commonly asked questions.

En español | Social Security provided benefits to nearly 61 million Americans last year. Among beneficiaries age 65 and older, 21 percent of married couples and 43 percent of unmarried people rely on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their income. And 48 percent of married couples and 71 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 June 2016, 16 percent of beneficiaries were disabled workers and their dependents, and 13 percent were survivors (such as widows, widowers and children).

At what age can I start collecting Social Security benefits? Workers can begin receiving retirement benefits at age 62, but your benefit will be greater if you wait until your full retirement age (currently 66 for those born after 1942) 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 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 over time.

If you're reaching your full retirement age in 2017, the amount you can earn this year without a reduction in benefits is $44,880. If you're younger than that, the amount you can earn without a reduction in benefits is $16,920. After you reach your full retirement age, you keep all your benefits, no matter how much you earn.

What's the maximum monthly Social Security benefit?

For a worker retiring in 2017 at the full retirement age of 66, the highest monthly amount is $2,687. In December 2016, the average monthly Social Security benefit for a retired worker was about $1,360.

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 instance, by postponing Social Security until your full retirement age of 66, your benefit will be 25 percent higher than if you started as early as possible. Delay Social Security beyond your full retirement age, and your benefit will go up 8 percent a year until 70 — a 32 percent bonus. (See for yourself: Try the AARP Social Security Benefits Calculator.)

How can I receive my Social Security payments? The Department of Treasury did away with paper checks in March 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.

Video: Don't Be Clueless About Your Social Security Benefits - Almost a quarter of future retirees who expect to receive Social Security either guess or don't know how much their benefits will be.

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