Social Security Benefits

Chapter 3: Section 9

General Description

Social Security is one of the three legs of the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), a civil service annuity and the Thrift Savings Plan being the other two. Many employees under the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) also are eligible for Social Security benefits, due either to their employment in Social Security-covered jobs or military service, or through spousal or survivor rights. However, there are offsets, called the Government Pension Offset (GPO) and the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP), that often reduce or even eliminate Social Security benefits for CSRS employees. Employees under the CSRS Offset system are covered by Social Security; their federal retirement benefits are offset when they become eligible to draw Social Security benefits.

A person must work and pay taxes into Social Security to get something out of it, except for those who benefit as a dependent or survivor of someone else. Working and paying the taxes build up credits toward coverage; most people need 40 credits (10 years of work) to qualify. Younger people need fewer credits to be eligible for disability benefits or for their family members to be eligible for survivor benefits if they should die before achieving the normally required credits.

Most workers earn many more credits than are needed to be eligible for Social Security. These credits do not increase the eventual Social Security benefit. However, higher income earned will increase the benefit. The amount of a Social Security benefit is based on factors including date of birth, type of benefit being applied for, and, most important, the individual’s earnings.

A person who had sufficient credits and was born before 1938 was eligible for full Social Security retirement benefits at age 65. For individuals born in 1938 or later, the “full” or “normal” retirement age varies according to the person’s year of birth; it currently is 66. See Computation of Social Security Benefits, below.

However, reduced benefits remain available to those with sufficient coverage credits as early as age 62. For individuals who draw benefits before their full retirement age, benefits are permanently reduced based on the number of months they will receive payments before reaching full retirement age.

Social Security not only pays a benefit to the retiring worker but also potentially to the worker’s spouse and any eligible children. The spouse and child’s benefits are payable while the retired worker is still living and do not affect the level of the worker’s benefit. However, the spouse will not receive this benefit if he or she is eligible for his or her own Social Security benefit that exceeds the level of the spouse benefit—that is, the benefit paid is the higher of the two. Survivor benefits also are payable if certain criteria are met, as described below:

Under the June 26, 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in United States v. Windsor (133 S. Ct. 2675) that overturned the Defense of Marriage Act’s definition of marriage for federal benefits purposes as only between a man and a woman, SSA allows spousal retirement benefit claims based on a same-sex marriage if the “worker” (the individual who paid into Social Security) is a resident at the time of the application, or while the claim is pending, of a state that recognizes the marriage. It similarly allows surviving spouse and lump-sum death benefit claims if the worker’s state of residence at the time of death recognizes the marriage. If the state of the worker’s residence at the pertinent time does not recognize such a marriage, SSA looks to whether the state would allow the claimant to inherit a spouse’s share of the worker’s personal property if the worker died without leaving a will. (Note: In some states, non-marital legal relationship such as civil unions and domestic partnerships meet this criterion; in those cases, SSA treats the couple’s relationship as a marital relationship even if same-sex marriage is not recognized in that state.) Standard length of marriage requirements  apply: one year for spousal benefits, nine months for survivor benefits, with certain exceptions.

The agency encourages the filing of claims even if the claimant is uncertain whether he or she would qualify, in order to protect against the loss of potential benefits simply due to missing a claiming deadline.

Guidance is at www.socialsecurity.gov/same-sexcouples.

Social Security benefits are increased by cost-of-living adjustments each January based on the same formula used for civil service retirement COLAs (see Chapter 4, Section 3). Unlike in federal retirement, a full Social Security COLA is paid even to those who have been drawing benefits for less than a full year.

Coverage of Federal Employees

All federal employees first hired after December 31, 1983 into the FERS retirement system are covered by Social Security and pay Social Security taxes, as do employees covered by CSRS Offset, which in general covers employees first hired before 1984, served at least five years, and had a break in service—that is, they left government and later returned. Also covered by Social Security are employees first hired before 1984 who switched from CSRS to FERS during one of the open seasons in which that was allowed. See Section 1 of this chapter for specific policies regarding retirement system coverage.

Federal employees (such as those in temporary positions) who are not covered under a federal retirement system generally are covered by Social Security only.

CSRS-covered employees may earn sufficient credits to qualify for Social Security benefits based on their own work record, most often through:

  • employment or self-employment covered by Social Security before entering CSRS, on the side while employed under CSRS, or after retirement or resignation from a CSRS-covered job;
  • employment covered by Social Security as a temporary federal employee; or
  • military service since 1957.

The Windfall Elimination Provision (see below) commonly applies to such persons.

Also, CSRS-covered persons may qualify for Social Security spousal or survivor benefits based on a spouse’s work under Social Security. However, those benefits may be subject to the Government Pension Offset (see below).

Credits and Insured Status

In general, anyone who was paid $50 or more for full or part-time work covered by Social Security during a calendar quarter of a year before 1978, he received one quarter of coverage for that work up to a maximum of four per year. In 1978, a quarter of coverage was credited (up to a maximum of four) for each $250 in annual earnings. After 1978, the amount required for a quarter of coverage (now called “credits”) began to rise to reflect increases in average wages. 

In 2014, a person earns one credit for each $1,200 in earnings, up to the yearly maximum of four credits. This does not mean that at least $1,200 must be earned in each quarter of the year. For example, anyone earning $4,800 during the first month of the year would be entitled to the maximum four quarters of coverage for that year.

Earning Credits—Work in commerce and industry has earned Social Security credit since 1937. The Social Security law has been expanded over the years to bring almost all work under the program. This includes:

  • Self-employment. Credit toward insured status is earned for any year in which net earnings are at least equal to the amount for a credit of coverage. However, federal employees operating a business during non-work hours should be reporting their earnings from the activity if the net earnings are $400 or more. They must pay Social Security taxes on these earnings, and will get Social Security credit for their part-time work.
  • Basic pay for military service after 1956. Military service starting in 1957 is creditable under Social Security. Also, the military pay for federal employees who are military reservists and go on active duty is covered under Social Security. Beginning January 1, 1988, wages paid for inactive duty service are covered wages for Social Security purposes. In addition, under certain circumstances extra earnings for military service from 1940 through 2001 are credited to a worker’s record for Social Security purposes. If eligibility rules are met, these credits are: $160 a month in earnings for military service from September 16, 1940, through December 31, 1956; $300 for each calendar quarter between 1957 and 1977; and $100 for every $300 in active duty basic pay, up to a maximum of $1,200 a year, for service between 1978 and 2001. For service after 1967, these credits are automatically added to the worker’s record. For service in 1967 and earlier, the credits are added when the individual applies for benefits. There are no special credits for military service for 2002 and later.

Fully Insured—Forty credits, which can be earned in as little as 10 years of full or part-time work, is all that anyone needs to be insured for retirement and survivors insurance benefits. That amount of credits ensures that at least some amount of Social Security benefits will be paid to the worker and the employee’s family members or survivors. For workers who reached age 62 before 1991, fewer than 40 credits were required to be fully insured. The general rule is that a person is fully insured if that person has at least one credit (whenever acquired) for every full calendar year elapsing after 1950 (or elapsing after the year in which the person attained age 21, if attainment is after 1950) up to but not including, the year in which the person becomes disabled, attains age 62, or dies, whichever occurs earliest.

Currently Insured—A person is termed currently insured if he or she has Social Security credit for work in at least six calendar quarters during the 13-quarter period ending with the calendar quarter in which he or she dies, becomes entitled to retirement benefits, or becomes disabled before death. Certain benefits—including those to young survivors—can be paid on just this amount of Social Security credit. To be considered fully insured for Social Security benefits all workers born after 1929 need 40 credits, regardless of when earned. (Workers born before 1929 needed fewer credits depending on their date of birth.)

Insured for Disability—A person who has enough work credit may qualify for monthly disability insurance benefits for himself/herself and his/her family if he/she has 20 Social Security credits in the 10 years just before he or she became disabled and is fully insured. (Workers under age 31 may qualify with fewer credits.) Blind disabled workers need be only fully insured.

Degree of Disability on Which Benefits Can Be Paid—To get disability insurance benefits, the worker must have, in addition to the necessary work credits, a physical or mental impairment so severe that it makes him or her unable to do any “substantial” work. Generally, a job that pays $1,070 or more per month is deemed “substantial.” This impairment must be a kind that will show up in medical examinations and tests, and it must be expected to continue for at least 12 months or result in death. The disabling conditions must have lasted for at least five full months before benefits can be paid. Application for benefits can be made earlier, however.

Paying Taxes and Reporting Earnings

The employer is responsible for withholding the employee’s share of the Social Security tax, adding an equal amount, remitting the tax to the IRS, and reporting the employee’s earnings. Earnings are reported annually. When a report reaches the Social Security Administration’s record keeping headquarters, each person’s earnings are credited to his or her individual earnings record, which is identified by the name and number appearing on the Social Security card.

Self-employed persons are responsible for reporting their own earnings—and earnings of their employees—for Social Security purposes. Self-employment earnings must be reported on an annual income tax return and taxes are paid through this return.

The Social Security Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance tax (normally 6.2 percent; 4.2 percent in 2011 and 2012) applies to earnings up to $117,000 in 2014. This is also known as the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) tax.

Monthly Benefit Payments

When a worker has enough Social Security credits, the following benefits may be paid:

  • monthly retirement insurance benefits for him or her, and benefits for dependent family members;
  • monthly disability insurance benefits (up to retirement age) for him or her, and benefits for dependent family members; and
  • monthly survivor insurance benefits for the family when he or she dies, plus a lump-sum death payment in some cases.

A person eligible for benefits based on his or her own earnings and also for benefits as a family member or survivor (generally as a wife or widow) will receive the full amount of his or her own benefit, plus an amount equal to any excess of the other benefit over his or her own—in effect, the larger of the two.

The amounts of all Social Security benefit payments are based on a worker’s average earnings under Social Security during a certain number of years specified in the law.

Monthly benefits payable to the worker and his or her family members or survivors are subject to a maximum family benefit amount that varies directly with the worker’s benefit level.

Computation of Social Security Benefits

The calculation of a Social Security benefit is more complex than that for federal retirement programs. Social Security benefits are based upon a worker’s career earnings. The more a worker earns up to the wage base and the longer a worker earns such amounts the higher the Social Security benefit. The maximum number of years used to compute career earnings is 35. Those born before 1929 had smaller numbers of years used to compute their career earnings.

By the time an individual is eligible for Social Security benefits, the dollar amounts of the individual’s actual earnings, particularly in the early years, will appear quite small. So the Social Security system requires that the yearly earnings be indexed upwards to reflect current dollars. The number of required yearly indexed earnings are totaled, dropping out the lowest earnings years to arrive at the required number of years to compute the Social Security benefit. The total earnings are then divided by the number of months in those years, resulting in the Average Indexed Monthly Earnings (AIME).

Once the AIME is determined a formula is applied:

  • 90 percent of the first $816 of the AIME, plus
  • 32 percent of the AIME in excess of $816 through $4,917, plus
  • 15 percent of the AIME over $4,917

Note the different percentage amounts in each of the three levels. These show how individuals at lower income levels receive higher percentages of their salaries than those at higher levels. The dollar amounts in the above formula change every year, but the percentages remain the same.

Other computations, such as reductions for retiring before the full retirement age, are rounded to the next lowest $0.10. After all computations are performed, the benefit is rounded to the next lowest dollar (unless already at an even multiple of the dollar).

Full Retirement Age—The “full” or “normal” retirement age currently is 66, having increased from 65 over six years starting in 2003. It eventually will rise to 67.

Early Retirement—You can start your Social Security benefits as early as age 62, but the benefit amount you receive will be less than your full retirement benefit. If you take early retirement, your benefits will be permanently reduced based on the number of months you will receive checks before you reach full retirement age. For example, if your full Social Security retirement age was 65, the reduction for starting Social Security at age 62 would have been about 20 percent; at age 63, about 13 1⁄2 percent; and about 6 2⁄3 percent at age 64. On the other hand, if your retirement age is 67, the reduction for starting your benefits at age 62 will be about 30 percent at age 62; about 25 percent at age 64; and about 13 1⁄3 percent at age 66. 

As a general rule, early retirement will give you about the same total Social Security benefits over your lifetime, but in smaller amounts to take into account the longer period you will receive them. For those drawing benefits before their full retirement age who continue working, the Earnings Test (see below) also must be taken into account.

Delayed Retirement—Each additional year you work adds another year of earnings to your Social Security record. Higher lifetime earnings also may result in higher benefits when you retire. In addition, your benefit will be increased if you delay retirement (up to age 70, after which there is no further increase). The percentage increase varies depending on your year of birth, ranging up to 8 percent per year for those born in 1943 and later. 

Benefit Estimates—Social Security mails annual benefits estimates to workers age 60 and older who are not already receiving benefits. With verification of identity, others may request a statement through www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount, and in some cases from local Social Security offices.

The statement is intended to help workers plan their financial future by providing an updated record of their earnings that are posted to Social Security records and estimates of benefits the worker and family may be eligible to receive now and in the future. If the person has work not covered by Social Security, the statement will not show those earnings. Therefore, the benefit estimates do not reflect the potential effects of the Windfall Elimination Provision or the Government Pension Offset (see below), although they do call attention to those provisions.

SSA has an online benefit calculator at www.ssa.gov/estimator. Linked to your Social Security earnings record with identity protection, it can provide an estimate of your retirement benefits comparable to the estimate you receive on your annual statement. It can be used to estimate your potential benefit amounts using different retirement dates and different levels of potential future earnings but does not take into account possible effects of the Windfall Elimination Provision or Government Pension Offset. 

Social Security Disability Benefits

In addition to retirement benefits, Social Security pays benefits to disabled workers. To be eligible for disability benefits, the worker must have worked long enough and recently enough under Social Security to qualify for disability benefits. See FERS Disability Computations in Section 6 of this chapter for rules regarding the coordination of Social Security and civil service disability benefits.

The number of credits of coverage necessary to be eligible for disability benefits equals the number of years from the time the worker turned age 22 to the date of disability. In addition, a worker must have been covered under the Social Security system for a certain period leading up to the onset of disability. For example, an individual older than age 31 must be covered by Social Security for 20 of his or her last 40 credits of employment. Those under age 31 need fewer credits.

Once a Social Security-covered worker becomes disabled, he or she must apply to the Social Security Administration (SSA) for benefits. SSA determines whether the worker meets the definition of disability. Disability is defined as being so severely physically or mentally impaired that he or she cannot perform any substantial gainful activity and the disability is expected to last at least 12 months or result in death.

Benefits do not begin until after a five-month waiting period. Social Security disability benefits continue until the beneficiary dies or converts to Social Security retirement, or until SSA determines that the beneficiary is no longer eligible due to earned income (the earning thresholds vary by type of disability but overall are very low) or improvement in the medical condition. SSA conducts “continuing disability reviews” at least once every three years on beneficiaries whose medical improvement is possible or expected; where medical improvement is not expected, they are conducted every seven years.

The accompanying table shows the levels of disability benefits for those at differing ages and income levels.

When you reach Social Security’s “full” retirement age (see Computation of Social Security Benefits, above), your Social Security benefit will no longer be considered a disability benefit, although the payment amount won’t change.

Social Security Survivor Benefits

The Social Security system also pays benefits to survivors of workers. For a worker’s survivors to be eligible for survivor benefits, the worker must be either fully insured or “currently connected” to the workforce by having been covered by Social Security for six quarters of the last 13.

The accompanying table displays the eligible survivors of a fully insured worker and the amounts to which they are entitled:

Eligible survivors of a worker who was only currently connected to the workforce and not fully insured is limited to a spouse with eligible children and the children. Note in either case, spouses with no dependent children receive no survivor benefit. Where the worker was fully insured, the spouse would receive a survivor benefit when the spouse turned age 60 or age 50 if disabled.

A surviving spouse or divorced surviving spouse receives an unreduced benefit at full retirement age. At age 60 the benefit is reduced to 71.5 percent. All ages in between are reduced proportionately. Full retirement age for surviving spouses and divorced surviving spouses is shown in the following chart.

Dependent Benefits

Monthly Social Security checks also are paid to certain family members of a worker who has retired, become disabled or who has died.
Retirement or Disability—Monthly payment can be made to a retired or disabled worker’s:

  • unmarried children under 18 (or up to age 19 if a full-time secondary school student);
  • children 18 or over who were severely disabled before 22 and who continue to be disabled;
  • wife or husband 62 or over, including a divorced wife or husband 62 or over if married for 10 years prior to divorce;
  • spouse under 62 who is caring for worker’s child under 16 (or disabled) who’s eligible for a benefit based on the retired or disabled worker’s earnings.

Survivors—Monthly payments can be made to a deceased worker’s:

  • unmarried children under 18 (or up to age 19 if a full-time secondary school student);
  • son or daughter 18 or over who was severely disabled before 22 and remains disabled;
  • widow or widower 60 or older, including a divorced widow or widower 60 or older if married for 10 years prior to divorce;
  • widow(er), or surviving divorced mother or father if caring for worker’s child under 16 (or disabled) who is getting a benefit based on the earnings of the deceased worker;
  • widow(er) 50 or older, including a divorced widow or widower married for 10 years prior to divorce, who becomes disabled not later than seven years after worker’s death, or within seven years after he or she stops getting checks as a widow or widower caring for worker’s children; and
  • dependent parents 62 or older.

A divorced spouse age 62 or older may be eligible for benefits even if the worker is not currently receiving benefits. The worker must be at least age 62, the spouse must be divorced from the worker for at least two years, and the marriage must have lasted for 10 years.

The Earnings Test

If you’re receiving Social Security retirement or survivors benefits and still working, you can earn a certain amount of money while receiving benefits. However, depending on your age, your benefits will be reduced if you earn over certain limits. This is the so-called Earnings Test.

Your earnings in (and after) the month you reach your full retirement age will not affect your Social Security benefits. However, your benefits will be reduced if your earnings exceed certain limits for the months before you reach your full retirement age. See the Age to Receive Full Social Security Benefits table.

If you’re under full retirement age, $1 in benefits will be deducted for each $2 in earnings you have above the annual limit ($15,480 in 2014).

In the year you reach your full retirement age, your benefits will be reduced $1 for every $3 you earn over a different annual limit ($41,400 in 2014) until the month you reach full retirement age. There is no limit on your earnings starting with the month in which you reach full retirement age.

Only your wages count toward Social Security’s earnings limits. If you’re self-employed, SSA counts only your net earnings from self-employment. Non-work income such as other government benefits, investment earnings, interest, pensions, annuities, and capital gains don’t count. If you’re self-employed, income counts when you receive it—not when you earn it—except if it is paid in a year after you begin receiving Social Security and was earned before then. For example, if you started getting Social Security in June 2013 and you received money in February 2014 for work you did before June 2013, it would not count against your 2014 earnings limit.

If you’re not self-employed, income counts when it is earned, not when it is paid. If you have income that you earned in one year but the payment was deferred to the following year, it does not count as earnings for the year you receive it.

A special rule applies to earnings for one year, usually the first year of retirement, for those who retire after having already earned more than the earnings limit for that year. Under this “first year” rule, you can receive a full Social Security check for any whole month you are retired and earn under the limit, regardless of your yearly earnings.

At any time during the year, if you see that your earnings will be different from what you had estimated, you should call SSA to revise your estimate. This will help SSA keep the amount of your Social Security benefits correct.

If other family members get benefits on your Social Security record, the total family benefits may be affected by your earnings. This means SSA may withhold not only your benefits, but those payable to your family as well. But, if you get benefits as a family member, your earnings affect only your own benefits.

Windfall Elimination Provision

If you will receive a pension from a job where you didn’t pay Social Security taxes, such as from the Civil Service Retirement System, and you also have enough Social Security credits to be eligible for retirement or disability benefits, a modified formula may be used to figure your benefit amount. This modified formula will give you a lower Social Security benefit, but it will not affect your other annuity. This reduction is known as the “Windfall Elimination Provision.” (Note: The WEP will not reduce any Social Security benefit amount attributable to federal service where Social Security taxes are withheld. However, it may affect other periods of service where Social Security taxes were not withheld. See below.)

Who Is Affected—The modified formula affects workers who reach 62 or become disabled after 1985 and first become eligible after 1985 for a monthly annuity based in whole or in part on work not covered by Social Security. You are considered eligible to receive an annuity if you meet its eligibility requirements,

even if you continue to work. Therefore, if you became eligible to receive the annuity prior to 1986, the Windfall Elimination Provision does not affect you.

The modified formula will be used in figuring your Social Security benefit beginning with the first month you get both a Social Security benefit and an annuity based on employment not covered by Social Security.

Why a Different Formula Is Used—Since the beginning of the Social Security program, lower-paid workers have received larger benefits in relation to their earnings than higher-paid workers. However, because of the way benefits were computed, people who worked only part of their lives in jobs covered by Social Security had their benefits computed as if they were long-term, low-wage workers. These workers received the advantage of higher Social Security benefits, in addition to their annuities from work not covered by Social Security. In 1983, the Social Security law was changed to eliminate this advantage.

How It Works—Social Security benefits are based on the worker’s average monthly earnings, indexed for changes in national average earnings. When Social Security figures your benefits, it separates your average indexed monthly earnings into up to three amounts and multiplies the figures using percentage factors as described in Computation of Social Security Benefits, above. In the WEP-modified formula, the first, 90 percent, factor is reduced if you have fewer than 30 years of “substantial” Social Security earnings. For people with 21–29 years of such earnings, the first factor in the formula is reduced on a scale. For people with 20 or fewer years of such earnings, the first factor is set at 40 percent.

For the modified formula, you are considered to have a year of substantial earnings if your earnings equal or exceed the figures shown for each year in the chart below.

Some Exceptions—The modified formula does not apply to survivors’ benefits. It also does not apply to you if:

  • you are a federal worker first hired after December 31, 1983;
  • you were employed on January 1, 1984, by a non-profit organization that was required to be covered under Social Security on that date;
  • you met the eligibility requirements for an immediate federal retirement before January 1, 1986;
  • your only pension is based solely on railroad employment;
  • your only work where you did not pay Social Security taxes was before 1957; or
  • you have 30 or more years of “substantial” earnings under Social Security.

Guarantee—A guarantee is provided to protect workers with relatively low pensions. It provides that the reduction in the Social Security benefit under the modified formula cannot be more than one-half of that part of the pension attributable to earnings after 1956 not covered by Social Security.

The Social Security Administration has an online calculator for estimating the effects of the Windfall Elimination Provision at www.ssa.gov/retire2/anyPiaWepjs04.htm. You may also contact Social Security at (800) 772-1213, TTY (800) 325-0778, or go to www.ssa.gov/gpo-wep.

Government Pension Offset

If you worked for a federal, state or local government where you did not pay Social Security taxes (such as CSRS, although not CSRS Offset or FERS), some or all of a Social Security spousal or survivor benefit for which you may be qualified may be offset under the Government Pension Offset, sometimes called the Public Pension Offset.

The offset will reduce the amount of your Social Security spousal or survivor benefits by two-thirds of the amount of your non-Social Security annuity. In other words, if you get a monthly CSRS annuity of $1,200, two-thirds of that, or $800, must be used to offset your Social Security spousal or survivor benefits. If you’re eligible for a $900 spousal or survivor Social Security benefit, you’ll receive $100 per month from Social Security ($900–$800=$100).

If you take your annuity in a lump sum, the offset is figured as if you chose to receive regular monthly benefits.

The following individuals are exempt from the GPO:

  • Anyone whose non-Social Security government annuity is not based on his or her own earnings, for example, a CSRS survivor annuity.
  • Anyone who received or who was eligible to receive a government annuity before December 1982 and who meets all the requirements for Social Security spouse’s benefits in effect in January 1977.
  • Anyone who received or was eligible to receive a federal, state or local government annuity before July 1, 1983, and was receiving one-half support from her or his spouse.
  • Federal employees, including FERS and CSRS Offset employees, who have mandatory Social Security coverage.
  • Federal employees who chose to switch from CSRS to the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) on or before December 31, 1987, as well as those employees who were allowed to make a belated switch to FERS through June 30, 1988. Employees who switched outside of these periods, including those who switched during the open season from July 1, 1998, through December 31, 1998, need five years under FERS to be exempt from the GPO.

An online calculator is at www.ssa.gov/retire2/gpo-calc.htm. You may also contact Social Security at (800) 772-1213 or go to www.ssa.gov/gpo-wep for additional information.

‘Last Day Rule’—Public Law 108-203 eliminated effective March 2, 2004, the “last day of covered employment exemption” to the GPO. Under the so-called “last day rule,” an individual was exempt from the GPO if his or her last day of government employment was in a job covered by both Social Security and a government pension system that did not include Social Security. This was an exception that mainly applied to certain state and local government employees whose employers allowed them to switch into Social Security-covered status just before retirement in order to avoid the GPO. The law now requires that the last 60 months of a person’s government employment before retirement be covered by Social Security and the government pension system in order to avoid the GPO. Generally, the change was effective for those filing for Social Security benefits in April 2004 or later. Any prior Social Security beneficiary receiving Social Security spouse’s or surviving spouse’s benefits and who did not have the GPO applied because of the last day rule continues to receive Social Security benefits without the application of the GPO.

One-Time Death Benefit Payment

A one-time payment of $255 can be made to the widow or widower who was living in the same household as the worker in the month of death or who was eligible to receive monthly benefits at the time of the worker’s death (excluding a divorced spouse). In the absence of a widow or widower, the payment can be made to any child of the deceased worker who is eligible for benefits for the month of death as a surviving child. The payment can be made if the worker is either currently or fully insured.

Applying for Social Security Benefits

Call (800) 772-1213, TTY (800) 325-0778, to apply for benefits or to make an appointment to visit any Social Security office to apply in person. You also can apply online for retirement, disability, or spouse’s benefits at https://secure.ssa.gov/iCLM/rib; information to review before applying is at www.ssa.gov/retire2/applying8.htm. Depending on your circumstances, you will need some or all of: your Social Security number; your birth certificate; your W-2 forms or self-employment tax return for the previous year; your military discharge papers if you had military service; your spouse’s birth certificate and Social Security number if he or she is applying for benefits; children’s birth certificates and Social Security numbers, if applying for children’s benefits; proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status if you (or a spouse or child is applying for benefits) were not born in the U.S.; and the name of your bank and your account number so your benefits can be directly deposited into your account. You will need to submit original documents or copies certified by the issuing office.

For disability benefits, other required information may include: the Social Security number and proof of age for each person applying for payments including your spouse and children, if they are applying for benefits; names, addresses, and phone numbers of doctors, hospitals, clinics and institutions that treated you and dates of treatment; names of all medications you are taking; medical records from your doctors, therapists, hospitals, clinics and caseworkers; laboratory and test results; a summary of where you worked and the kind of work you did; your W-2 forms or self-employment tax return for the previous year; and dates of prior marriages if your spouse is applying.

Appeals—If you disagree with a decision made on your claim, you can appeal it. The steps you can take are explained in the fact sheet, The Appeals Process (Publication No. 05-10041). You have the right to be represented by an attorney or other qualified person of your choice. More information is in the fact sheet, Your Right to Representation (Publication No. 05-10075). These and other publications are available by calling (800) 772-1213 (TTY (800) 325-0778) and at www.ssa.gov/pubs.

When Benefit Payments Start

Retirement Insurance Benefits—Retirement insurance benefits are available to covered workers as early as age 62. See Computation of Social Security Benefits, above, for information about the reduction for drawing benefits before full retirement age.

When children and a spouse caring for these children are eligible for benefits, their payments usually can start the first month in which the worker is entitled to benefits. Benefits to each child continue until he or she reaches 18, or up to age 19 if still a full-time secondary school student unless he/she marries at an earlier age. Benefits to a child disabled before 22 continue as long as the child is disabled. Benefits to the spouse continue until the youngest child reaches 16 or marries younger. The benefit amount is not reduced if the spouse is under full retirement age.

When a spouse does not have in his or her care children of his or her spouse who are entitled to benefits, his or her payments do not start until age 62 or the month his or her spouse starts getting retirement benefits, when this is later. If the spouse takes the benefit before he or she reaches retirement age, his or her monthly amount will be permanently reduced up to 35 percent at 62 to make up for the longer time his or her benefits will be paid. Benefits to a spouse under age 62 begin no earlier than the first month throughout which he or she has an entitled child under 16 or disabled in care. Benefits for a worker or spouse at age 62 can begin no earlier than the first month throughout which he or she is age 62.

Survivor Benefits—Monthly benefits to dependent parents, children and a widow or widower caring for the children can start with the month of the worker’s death.

When no dependent children are entitled to benefits, a surviving spouse gets benefits as early as age 60, but in a reduced amount. If he or she is disabled, reduced benefits can be paid as early as age 50. Full widow’s or widower’s benefits are payable if the surviving spouse waits until full retirement age. Dependents at age 62 are eligible for survivor benefits. Benefits to parents are not reduced in amount.

Disability Insurance Benefits—If a worker meets the disability requirements of the law (amount of work and extent of disability), he or she can get disability insurance benefits for the period of disability after a five-month waiting period, and, if the disability continues up to retirement age, when they are converted to old-age insurance benefits.

When a worker gets disability insurance benefits, payment to his or her children and spouse caring for the children usually can start with the first month in which the worker is entitled to benefits.

When the disability benefits cease, the benefits to family members also stop.

When no children are eligible for payments, a wife or husband is not eligible for payments until age 62, when he or she can get reduced benefits based on age.

Contacting Social Security

Social Security district offices are located throughout the country. Addresses of these offices are listed in telephone directories under “Social Security Administration.” The address of the nearest office can also be obtained by calling (800) 772-1213, TTY (800) 325-0778, or at https://secure.ssa.gov/icon/main.jsp

Individuals can also call with general questions about Social Security benefits, lost Social Security payments, misplaced Social Security cards, and so on. You can speak to a service representative between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on business days. Recorded information and services are available at other times.

Social Security offers a selection of free pamphlets that may be obtained at www.ssa.gov/pubs, or by telephone, letter or a visit to a local office.

At www.ssa.gov you can:

  • Get information about retirement benefits and options and calculate benefits.
  • Subscribe to e-News for news about Social Security programs and benefits, as well as annual cost-of-living information.
  • Apply for retirement, disability or spouse’s benefits online.
  • View your Social Security Statement.
  • Download and print Social Security publications.
  • Locate a local Social Security office.
  • Correct or change your name on your Social Security card or get a replacement card.

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