The Social Security system is deeply ingrained in the American way of life, so some people are surprised to learn that Social Security didn’t exist before 1935. And when the Social Security Act passed in that year, it only provided for retirement benefits. It was a little over 20 years later that disability benefits were added to the system.
Today, the Social Security Administration provides many benefits to eligible Americans, but the system is complicated, and you may need help to determine what benefits you’ve earned.
The majority of Social Security benefits fall into one of a few categories.
- Retirement benefits are provided to workers who are at least 62 years old and have worked long enough to be considered "insured." This means that they’ve worked long enough and paid enough into the Social Security system to earn monthly payments upon retiring.
- Disability benefits are paid to people who have long-term disabilities that prevent them from working for at least one year.
- Survivor benefits are provided to certain family members after the death of an insured worker. If the deceased was eligible for Social Security benefits, his or her surviving spouse can receive a small one-time payment. Additionally, the person’s minor or disabled child, dependent parents and surviving spouse over the age of 60 may be eligible for monthly benefit payments. Even divorced spouses may be eligible to receive one another’s benefits.
- Dependents of a retired, disabled or deceased insured worker may be eligible for monthly payments too. Minor children, full-time students aged 18-19 and disabled children over the age of 18 are considered to be dependents.
Because the specific benefits to which you’re entitled depend on your current circumstances, it’s often necessary to consult an expert to determine what you’re owed.
If you’re a worker or former worker who has paid into Social Security, you can consult your employment records or talk to your employer’s Human Resources department about your benefits.
The Social Security Administration also offers lots of resources for determining your eligibility.
- Visit Benefits.gov, a service of the SSA, and use the Benefits Finder. Answer a comprehensive set of questions about your work history and family to receive information about benefits that apply to you.
- Visit your local Social Security office to get one-on-one help in applying for benefits.
- Call the SSA at 1-800-772-1213, Monday through Friday between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. to speak to a representative.
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