Social Security Benefits

Social Security benefits are funds paid to individuals and families who are retired, disabled or otherwise eligible for government aid.

Contrary to popular belief, Social Security is not reserved solely for adults who are entering retirement, though this group makes up a significant portion of benefit recipients. In the U.S., the Social Security Administration (SSA) manages benefits for all citizens and permanent residents who qualify for aid. There is no general cap to how long a person can reason Social Security benefits if they maintain a qualifying status.

Applying for Social Security benefits can be done in a few different ways, depending on the reason the applicant is requesting funding. Many aid recipients apply for funding through their state’s benefit program application or through a program managed by the Veterans Administration (VA), for example. The amount of benefits a person can qualify for depends on his or her qualifying reason for receiving aid, the area in which he or she lives and in some cases a retiree’s earning history. Read on for more important information about applying for and maintaining Social Security benefits.

Who can receive Social Security benefits in the U.S.?

Social Security benefits are reserved for a few groups of retired workers and individuals in need. The majority of Social Security benefits are paid out to Americans who have worked and paid taxes into the Social Security network for decades. A significant portion of most American’s taxes go directly towards the Social Security trust fund and making regular payments to eligible recipients. As of 2019, 85 cents of every tax dollar that goes to the SSA pays for retiree benefits or to surviving family members. The majority of remaining tax dollars go towards paying the benefits of disabled recipients and their families along with a supporting a fund with the same purpose.

Retirees in the U.S. can receive Social Security benefits once they have met a certain age and contributed a certain amount of time to the workforce. Once eligible, pensioners can expect to receive Social Security benefits in an amount relative to their average wages over their lifetime. Children in need are also a big benefactor of Social Security funds every year. Other common reasons applicants may qualify for Social Security benefits include:

  • Having a disability which impacts the recipient’s daily life
  • Being a surviving family members of a worker who died due to his or her job
  • Being a qualifying family member of a family member who receives benefits

What are the eligibility requirements to obtain Social Security benefits?

The specific eligibility requirements for Social Security benefits depend on the reason the applicant is requesting financial assistance. Applicants applying on the basis of a disability should be able to provide demonstrable proof of diagnosis for the disability along with a validated medical opinion about the effect of the disability on the applicant’s daily life. Surviving family members of deceased workers along with qualifying family members of current Social Security benefits must be able to demonstrate having a clear and direct relationship with the worker along with a present need for assistance.

Adults nearing the retirement age will have to meet an entirely different set of eligibility criteria in order to receive Social Security benefits. To understand how Social Security benefits work for pensioners, it is useful to understand how the system works in general. In the U.S., workers earn Social Security credits for each annual quarter in which they earn at least $1,320 in wages (and pay taxes on those wages) along with meeting a few other basic requirements. In order to receive Social Security benefits for retirement, most workers must have earned at least 40 Social Security benefits throughout their lifetime. Tax-payers can earn up to four Social Security credits a year.

The amount of Social Security benefits that an applicant will receive depends on several factors. For most benefit recipients, the amount they receive is directly proportional to the amount of tax dollars they put into the program, i.e. how much they earned throughout their lifetime. Pensioners with fewer Social Security credits will most likely receive less benefits than someone with 50 or even 60 credits. Similarly, workers who retire later in their careers are able to add more higher salary years to the calculation of their benefit amount, helping them receive more benefits later on.

In the U.S. today, workers can expect to enter their full retirement period from 65 or 66 years of age if born between 1938 and 1959, though semi-retirement is possible from 62 years of age. Workers born in 1960 or later must wait until they reach 67 years of age to reach full retirement.

How can retirees apply for Social Security benefits?

Workers who are nearing their retirement age should begin going through the list of retirement requirements to make sure they have enough qualifying Social Security credits and are ready for the life change. Retiring workers should note that most retirement applications submitted to the SSA take at least four months to be processed, so planning ahead is essential to avoiding financial problems during this period. Applicants for benefits who are eligible family members of recipients or deceased workers should apply immediately upon becoming eligible.

Applications for Social Security benefits can be submitted through an applicant’s local benefits program, community help center or directly to the national system. Some areas allow benefit applications to be submitted online, while most accept applications submitted in person, over the phone and by mail as well. Applicants should expect to be required to provide proof of any claims and to be interviewed by a government representative concerning some of the applicant’s responses on the request.

The specific documents that the applicant will be asked to provide along with the application vary according to the specifics of the particular case. A sampling of the type of documentation applicants are asked to provide to receive Social Security benefits include:

  • Certified U.S.-issued birth certificate
  • Social Security Card
  • Certified birth certificates and Social Security Cards of any applicable family members
  • Legal proof of U.S. citizenship or permanent resident status
  • Marriage or death certificates, as applicable
  • Military enrollment or discharge papers, if applicable
  • W-2 tax forms or a copy of a recent tax return

Applicants with non-traditional applications, like those with fewer than the general minimum requirement of Social Security benefits, may benefit from seeking the expertise of a benefits counselor or similar representative before submitting the application. Some applicants with particularly complicated cases even hire legal experts to help them successfully complete their application and navigate the benefits system.