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Understanding the Different Kinds of Social Security Benefits

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

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Maximize Social Security benefit amount based on the various types you may qualify to receive.

En español | Q: I'm trying to figure out what Social Security benefits I might qualify for. But it's confusing — there are so many different kinds. Can you explain what they are and how they work?

A: We tend to think of Social Security benefits as going just to retired workers. But the more than 59 million Americans who receive monthly payments from Social Security include children, widows and widowers who've lost working mates, disabled people who can no longer work, and even the former spouses of breadwinners.

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Q: But retirees are the biggest group, right?

A: Yes. They number about 38 million. Generally, you need 10 years of work in a job in which you pay Social Security taxes to be eligible for retirement benefits. You can apply for these benefits as early as age 62 or as late as age 70, with the monthly amount going up the longer you put it off. Your payment is largely determined by your lifetime earnings — specifically the money you earned during your highest-paying 35 years.

If you've been married at least a year, your spouse may qualify for a spousal benefit when you begin your own retirement benefit. It's generally equal to as much as 50 percent of what you're getting.

Q: How is it that children can get benefits?

A: Social Security provides cash benefits to families who lose their breadwinners because of death or disability. The money goes not just to the surviving spouse but to children and can be substantial over time. For example, if a 30-year-old worker dies, leaving a wife and two young children, the expected lifetime benefits for the children and widow would equal a $476,000 life insurance policy, according to the Social Security Administration.

But there may also be benefits for children whose parents simply retire. That can happen when the people became parents late in life.

Generally, benefits are available to children under the age of 18 — or 19 if they're still in high school. The money is payable to a biological child, an adopted child or a dependent stepchild. A child who is over 18 and disabled may also be eligible if the disability started before age 22.

For a child to claim benefits, the parent must normally have worked for at least 10 years. However, in cases where a parent dies at an early age, his or her children can get benefits if the parent had as little as a year and a half's work in the three years before the death.

Q: How much money can a child receive?

A: It can be as much as half of a living parent's full retirement or disability benefit, or 75 percent of a deceased parent's full retirement benefit. However, because several children in a family may be receiving benefits at the same time, there's a limit on how much can be paid to one family. The limit ranges from 150 to 180 percent of the parent's full retirement amount.

Q: What about survivor benefits?

A: Widows and widowers can receive 100 percent of their deceased breadwinner spouse's full retirement benefit if they wait to claim until they reach their own full retirement age, currently 66 for people born from 1945 to 1956. However, a reduced survivor benefit can be taken as early as age 60.

Widows and widowers who are disabled can take their survivor's benefits as early as age 50.

Q: And benefits can extend to divorced spouses, too?

A: Yes. In 1965, because divorce so frequently created financial distress for older women in this country, Social Security extended benefits to divorced spouses whose marriages had lasted at least 20 years. That term was later shortened to the current 10 years.

Basically, the rules provide that a divorced spouse can receive benefits on an ex-spouse's work record — even if the ex-spouse has remarried. This includes a spousal benefit while the ex is still alive and a survivor benefit after that person dies.

To claim benefits before the death, you must be unmarried and age 62 or older. Your ex-spouse must be entitled to retirement benefits. And the benefit you'd get on your own work record must be smaller than what you'd get on the work record of your ex-spouse.

The rules are a bit different if you're claiming a survivor's benefit as a divorced spouse. You can't qualify if you remarried before age 60, but you can if the wedding took place at 60 or older.

If you wait until your full retirement age to begin a benefit as a divorced spouse, you can get 50 percent of your former spouse's full retirement amount.

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 AARP Social Security Question and Answer Tool.

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