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Types of Social Security Benefits

The Social Security system is the heart of America's social safety net, providing many types of Social Security benefits to help prevent suffering during old age, disability, or periods of financial hardship. Though monthly payments to current retirees are the most common type of Social Security benefit, Social Security programs also provide aid to the family and dependents of workers who have died, people prevented from working due to disability, and those with very little income.

Social Security Retirement Benefits

Social Security retirement benefits are paid for through payroll taxes taken directly from a worker's income. Your monthly payments in retirement will be based on the amount you contribute through these taxes in your working years. Retirement benefits are "earned entitlements." This means a worker must work and contribute Social Security taxes for a minimum amount of time in order to qualify for benefits in retirement.

The Social Security Administration determines who qualifies for retirement benefits through a "credit" system. A credit is awarded for each quarter of a year in which you work and pay Social Security taxes. Any workers born after 1929 qualify for Social Security retirement benefits when they have earned 40 credits, typically 10 years of work.

Your monthly benefit is based on the amount you earned when working and your age when you retire. You can begin receiving retirement benefits as early as 62, though your payments will be smaller if you collect before full retirement age. Full retirement age is 65 for those born before 1937 and rises slowly to 67 for those born in 1960 or later. If you wait past your full retirement age to collect benefits, your monthly benefits will be increased when you do decide to claim them.

Year Born

"Full Retirement Age"




65 and 2 months


65 and 4 months


65 and 6 months


65 and 8 months


65 and 10 months




66 and 2 months


66 and 4 months


66 and 6 months


66 and 8 months


66 and 10 months

1960 and on


Social Security Benefits for Spouses and Survivors

Spouses may receive Social Security benefits even if they have never worked on their own. Starting at age 62, if you are receiving or eligible for retirement benefits, your husband or wife may begin receiving benefits based on your Social Security retirement account. Like normal retirement benefits, collecting early results in lower payments. At full retirement age, a spouse is eligible for payments equal to 50% of your benefits. If your spouse has earned retirement benefits on his or her own account, but would qualify for higher monthly payments as a spouse, they will receive the higher amount.

If a worker dies, their Social Security retirement savings do not disappear. The surviving spouse and dependents of a deceased worker can be entitled to payments based on that worker's earned benefits. Monthly survivor benefits are available for widows and widowers over age 60 (50 if disabled) or of any age if caring for the deceased worker's young child. Unmarried children under 18 (22 if disabled) also qualify for survivor's benefits, as do dependent parents over 62.

Even a spouse you divorced long ago can qualify to receive survivor benefits, if you were married more than ten years and your ex-spouse has not remarried. Survivor benefits for widows and widowers are typically 100% of the deceased worker's benefits. Children are entitled to 75%, and a dependent parent receives 82.5% or 75% if both parents collect. Total survivor benefits, however, cannot exceed 150% of the deceased's entitlements.

Social Security Disability Insurance

This type of Social Security benefit can provide important income to those who have been removed from the workforce before retirement due to illness or injury. To qualify for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits, a worker must have suffered a total disability. This means that to meet Social Security's definition of disability, you cannot be partially or temporarily disabled. To qualify for SSDI, applicants must show that they can no longer work in their previous occupation, cannot adjust to new work, and will not be able to work again for at least a year, due to their disability.

Supplemental Security Income

This type of Social Security benefit provides stipends to people who are blind, disabled, or 65 years old and over, and who have no or limited incomes and resources. These benefits provide money for basic needs such as food, shelter and clothing. Unlike retirement or SSDI, most supplemental income systems are administered by individual states.

Many people who qualify for Social Security benefits have their initial claims denied. You have a legal right to appeal a denial and to have a representative assist you when seeking benefits. If you have been wrongly denied a benefit or have questions about which type of Social Security benefits are available to you, consider contacting a qualified Social Security attorney to discuss your options.

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