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Who Can Receive Social Security?

Survivors, homemakers and the disabled can receive benefits

En español | Q. I know that Social Security helps support workers who have retired, but does it have programs for other people too?

A. It's true that many people think of Social Security chiefly in terms of those retirement checks — about 36 million people who faithfully paid into the system during their working lives currently receive them. In many American households, this money is absolutely crucial. Last year it accounted for 90 percent or more of the income of 22 percent of late-life beneficiary couples.

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But Social Security does much more. Here are some of the other ways it helps bolster personal financial security in this country:

  • Survivor insurance. Suppose a 30-year-old medium wage earner dies, leaving a spouse, 28, with a 2-year-old and a newborn. Those children would be entitled to survivor benefits equal over time to a $476,000 life insurance policy, according to the Social Security Administration. All told, about 6.3 million children, widows and parents receive survivor benefits.
  • Disability insurance. If that same worker became unable to work, his disability benefits up to age 67 would equal a disability policy of $329,000. About 11 million disabled people and their dependents are collecting these benefits.
  • Spousal benefits. The nonworking spouses of workers who pay into the Social Security system are entitled to retirement benefits of their own, equal to as much as 50 percent of what the retired worker is getting. Almost 3 million spouses and other dependents were benefiting from this program last year.
  • Death benefits. When a worker dies, the family may qualify for a one-time payment of $255 to help with funeral costs and other expenses.

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 AARP Social Security Question and Answer Tool.

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