Social Security is a term that gets bandied about a lot. Many people have at least some idea that Social Security is related to retirement, but there is a lot more to the matter. The more you know, the more you can make Social Security work to your advantage. You are never too young (or too old) to learn about this important government program.
What Is Social Security For?
The Social Security Administration provides a comprehensive Social Security handbook on its website. The document covers such topics as survivors benefits and Social Security for the self-employed. In general, the Social Security system has four main purposes: to safeguard older people and people with disabilities against financial ruin, to help families cover basic needs, to help keep families together, and to promote a safe environment for children to grow up in. About 90 percent of people at least 65 years old receive Social Security benefits.
How Social Security Works
As CNN Money explains, the Social Security contributions you make now go toward helping people who currently need them. In the same vein, when you retire, people who are working at that time will contribute to your Social Security benefits. Contributions are made through Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) taxes, which also support Medicare.
At What Age Do You Become Eligible for Social Security?
The age at which you become eligible for Social Security depends on your birthday. For example, the SSA says that if you were born between 1943 and 1954, you become fully eligible at age 66. However, you can begin receiving partial benefits as young as 62. The percentage of benefits you receive if you elect to get them early depends on your age and whether you are receiving benefits as a spouse. The picture does change if you are a survivor: that is, if a qualifying family member dies (more on this in the next section).
To figure out your exact eligibility age, check out this SSA chart. For instance, if you were born in 1960 or later, your full retirement age is 67, but you could receive partial benefits at age 62.
Geography does not affect Social Security benefits, and you can wait until age 70 before beginning to collect benefits. Your benefits could increase by as much as 8 percent for every year you wait to collect after full retirement age. In theory, you could wait until you are even older than 70 to collect, but you would be throwing away “free money.”
The SSA website provides a few tools to help you determine when is a good time to begin collecting your benefits. You can begin collecting benefits at age 62 and still work part time; CNN Money has the details.
What Happens When Someone Dies
Social Security offers survivors benefits to help offset the financial impact of a death. Whether a cremation or a traditional funeral is taking place, the funeral director typically lets the SSA know about the death. For example, the Neptune Society will need your loved one’s Social Security number to report the death.
Survivor’s benefits in your particular situation may include a lump sum payment of $255 that can be used for purposes such as defraying funeral and cremation expenses. Typically, you must be a spouse or child of the deceased and have lived in the same house at the time of death.
As long as you have accumulated the 40 required Social Security credits before your death, your minor children could receive up to 75 percent of the benefits you would get. Your spouse may be eligible for reduced benefits at age 60 or for your full benefits when the spouse reaches full retirement age. In both cases, children and spouses, maximum benefit amounts apply.
Even the SSA admits that the rules on receiving survivors benefits are complex. It encourages people who need assistance to contact a Social Security representative. The SSA provides a chart on ages and receiving survivors benefits, and the pros and cons of beginning benefits before your full retirement age.
How to Apply
You can apply for your (or your spouse’s or ex-spouse’s) Medicare and/or Social Security retirement benefits online. If you prefer, you can also apply via phone or in person at a local office. Aim to apply for benefits about four months before the date you want them to begin. In all cases, sign up for Medicare three months before you turn 65.
Social Security and Seniors: By the Numbers
As the SSA points out, Social Security helps senior citizens in many ways. Administration figures indicate that seniors get 39 percent of their income from Social Security benefits. The figures break down further to reveal that:
- As of June 2015, the average monthly benefit for a retired person was $1,335.
- Nearly 75 percent of unmarried seniors get more than half of their income through Social Security.
- Almost half of unmarried seniors get at least 90 percent of their income from Social Security.
- A little more than a half of married senior couples receive at least half of their income from Social Security.
- About 22 percent of married senior couples get at least 90 percent of their income from Social Security.
There is a lot to know about Social Security, and the information can be overwhelming. Take advantage of retirement planning calculators and other tools to estimate your benefit amount.