Q. What types of social security benefits are available?
A. Qualified workers are eligible for old age and disability benefits. Benefits are
also available for the spouse and dependents of a retired or disabled worker. When a
worker dies, benefits can be collected by the surviving family who qualify.
Social security is the United States’ most extensive program to provide income for
older and disabled Americans. It is paid for by a tax on workers and their employers. The
program is complicated, and the law and regulations change from time to time.
Contact your local office of the Social Security Administration (SSA) for literature
about social security benefits or to ask specific questions about your own case. They are
listed in the United States Government section of your telephone directory. Or, call 1-800-
772-1213, or see the SSA Internet site at www.ssa.gov.
Q. Who is covered?
A. Over 95 percent of American workers, including household help, farm workers,
self-employed persons, employees of state and local government and (since 1984) federal
workers. Railroad workers are covered by a separate federal program, railroad retirement,
that is integrated with social security.
Q. Will my social security benefits be enough for me to live on?
A. You won’t get as much as when you were working, so it is important to start
financial planning for retirement early. Social security was not set up to be a complete
source of retirement income, but rather to provide only a floor of protection. You will
probably need other sources of income, such as a pension from your employer or union, a
part-time job, or income from your life savings. Social security benefits do rise with the
cost of living.
Q. Who qualifies for social security?
A. Individuals must meet two fundamental qualifications to collect social security
benefits. First, a worker must be “insured” under social security. The simplest rule-ofthumb
is that ten years of work in covered employment will fully insure a worker for life.
However, there are alternative measures of insured status that enable many workers with
less than ten years of covered employment to be eligible, too. Second, you must meet the
status requirement for the particular benefit (for example, age, disability, dependency on a
worker, or survivorship).
Q. Just how much money will I get when I retire?
A. That depends on how much money you have earned over your lifetime, your
age at the time of retirement, and other factors.
The Social Security Administration will prepare an estimate, called a Personal
Earnings and Benefit Statement, even if you are some years from retirement. Simply get a
Personal Earnings and Benefit Statement Form from your local Social Security
Administration office or by calling the Social Security Administration, toll free, at 1-800-
772-1213. It’s a good idea to request this every few years, not only to see how your
benefits might change but to make sure your employers have been depositing to the Social
Security Administration your share and theirs of the social security tax.
Q. When can I retire?
A. The “normal” retirement age is sixty-five. But this age will be raised gradually
starting in the year 2000. By 2002, you will have to be sixty-seven to retire and collect full
You can collect partial benefits as early as age sixty-two if you are fully insured.
The benefits are reduced, because you potentially have more years of retirement to cover.
Early retirement benefits will not be raised when you turn sixty-five, except for normal
If you delay retirement until you are older than sixty-five, your benefits will be
increased, because you will not have as many years of retirement in which to collect.
Of course, you can retire whenever you want or can afford to, but you will not
receive social security retirement benefits until you are at least sixty-two.
Q. I want to retire, but then take a part-time job. Will this affect my benefits?
A. Yes. If you are under full retirement age (which is gradually rising from 65 to
67, see question above) and receiving benefits you may earn only a certain amount of
wages before your social security benefits are cut. There are two cut-off points–one for
workers age sixty-two through sixty-four, another for age sixty-five up to full retirement
age. For retirees age sixty-two through sixty-four, one dollar of benefits is withheld for every two dollars you earn above the cut-off point. For retirees sixty-five up to retirement
age, one dollar of benefits is withheld for every three dollars you earn above the cut-off
point. The cutoff point changes annually. Check with the Social Security Administration
office to see what it is when you take your new job. If you have reached the full retirement
age, you may earn an unlimited amount and still receive your full retirement benefit. Note
that the cut-off point applies only to wages. Your benefits will not be affected by any
money you earn from savings, investments, insurance, and the like.
Q. When the worker dies, who is eligible for benefits?
A. These family members qualify for disability benefits: a spouse who is at least
sixty years old; a disabled spouse who is at least fifty; children who are under eighteen (or
under nineteen if attending elementary or high school full-time) or are disabled; and
parents who are sixty-two or older and who received at least half of their support from the
worker at the time of his or her death.
Q. When are spouses of retirees entitled to collect benefits?
A. Depending on the situation, a husband or wife may collect benefits based on the
other’s work record. A husband or wife need not prove that he or she was dependent on the
other. In general, spouses qualify if they are at least sixty-two years old. They also qualify
if they are under sixty-two but are caring for a worker’s child who is either under sixteen
years old or who has been disabled since before age twenty-two. The amount the spouse
receives is usually one-half of what would have been paid to the worker. However, if the
spouse is entitled to benefits based on his or her own work record, the spouse will receive
the higher of the two benefits.
Q. Are divorced spouses eligible?
A. Yes. As long as the divorced spouse is sixty-two or older, was married to the
worker for at least ten years, and has not remarried. Divorced spouses who have been
divorced for at least two years may draw benefits at age sixty-two, as long as the former
spouse is eligible for retirement benefits; the former spouse does not actually have to be
drawing benefits. A divorced spouse may also be eligible for survivor benefits if the
worker dies while being fully insured or while receiving benefits.
Q. Which children can receive benefits?
A. A deceased or disabled worker’s unmarried children under eighteen years old
are eligible. Children under nineteen who attend elementary or secondary school full-time
can also collect. Also, a disabled child of any age can receive payments equal to
approximately one-half of the worker’s benefits, as long as the child became disabled
before age twenty-two.
Q. When should I file my claim to collect social security benefits?
A. If you are retiring, you should file two or three months before your retirement
date. Then, normally, your first social security check will arrive soon after you quit
working. It is important not to delay filing for either retirement or survivor benefits
because you will get paid retroactive benefits only for the six months prior to the month
you file your application, provided that you were eligible during those months. Retirement and survivor benefit applications take two to three months to process. Disability benefit
applications, however, take longer.
Q. What documents should I bring with me to apply for benefits?
A. A worker applying for retirement or disability benefits should bring his or her
social security card or proof of the number; a birth certificate or other proof of age; W-2
forms from the past two years or, if you are self-employed, copies of your last two federal
income tax returns; and, if applicable, proof of military service, since you may be able to
receive extra credit for active military duty.
Spouses applying for benefits from the worker’s account should also bring a
marriage certificate. Divorced spouses should have a divorce decree.
Children or their guardians seeking benefits need a birth certificate and evidence of
Dependent parents who want to collect benefits must bring some evidence of
Finally, spouses, children or parents seeking death benefits need the worker’s death
Q. If I am filing for disability benefits, what other documents should I bring
A. In addition to the documents listed above, you should try to bring a list, with
addresses and telephone numbers, of the doctors, hospitals, or institutions that have treated
you for your disability; a summary of all the jobs you have held for the past fifteen years
and the type of work you performed; and claim numbers of any checks you receive for
Q. What if I check on my benefits or file my claim and discover that the Social
Security Administration has made an error in the number of quarters I worked or
the amount of wages I was paid? Can I fix mistakes?
A. Yes. You have approximately three years from the year the wages were earned
to fix mistakes. However, mistakes caused by an employer’s failure to report your earnings
have no time limit.
You can fix these mistakes any time, but you will need proof. A pay stub, written
statement from the employer, or form OAR-7008 (Request for Correction of Earnings
Record) are all acceptable types of proof.
What to Remember When Dealing with the Social Security Office
As with any large government office, the best way to work with the Social Security
Administration is to keep a full, organized account of your communications or
conversations. Make a note of when you had each conversation, who you spoke with and
what was said. When you file a claim, you are automatically assigned a SSA worker. Keep
this person’s name and telephone number handy in case you need to contact the SSA for
Before you submit any forms or documents to the SSA, make sure you keep copies
for yourself. That way if anything is lost, you have a backup copy.Since the SSA keeps records by social security numbers, all forms or documents
you submit should have your social security number on the top of each page. Then if any
page becomes separated, it will still be placed in your file.
Q. What if I am under sixty-five and become disabled? Am I entitled to
benefits from social security?
A. Yes. Social security protects all workers under sixty-five against loss of
earnings due to disability. However, you must meet certain strict requirements for the
number of years employed, the age at which you became disabled, and the severity of your
Q. How does the Social Security Administration define a disability?
A. A disability is defined as the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity
by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be
expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous
period of not less than twelve months. The disability must be medically certified. Some
illnesses or handicaps are so serious that the Social Security Administration automatically
treats them as disabilities, such as severe epilepsy or blindness; SSA has a list of such
impairments. If you believe you are disabled but your impairment is not on the list, you
will have to prove that it is just as severe and disabling as the ones on the list.
Q. If I become disabled, how long may I get benefits?
A. Once you qualify for disability benefits, they will continue for as long as you
remain medically disabled and unable to work. Your health will be reviewed periodically
to determine your ability to return to work.
Q. What about my family?
A. If you are disabled, your unmarried children under age eighteen (or nineteen, if
still in high school full time) may be eligible for benefits from social security. In addition,
unmarried children over eighteen who are themselves disabled will also be eligible. If
your spouse is caring for a child who is either under sixteen or disabled, he or she may be
eligible, as is a spouse who is sixty-two or older. In some cases the disabled widow or
widower or the divorced spouse of a deceased worker may become eligible for disability
benefits. Check with your local Social Security Administration for specific eligibility
Claims Decisions and Appeals
Q. How will I know the outcome of my application for benefits?
A. You should receive written notification informing you whether your claim has
been approved or denied in sixty to ninety days.If your claim is approved, you will be told how much your benefits will be and
when to expect your first check. If, however, your claim is denied, your letter should list
Q. Can my social security benefits be reduced or terminated?
A. Yes. Benefits may be terminated if: you leave the United States for more than
six months; you are deported; you are convicted of certain crimes, such as treason and
espionage; or, you are an alien.
Convicted felons cannot receive retirement benefits while in prison. Disability
benefits can be terminated when the recipient recovers or refuses to accept rehabilitation
In any case, however, you should receive a letter notifying you of the reduction or
termination before SSA takes any action.
Q. If my claim is denied, or my benefits reduced or terminated, can I appeal?
A Yes. You have sixty days from the date on the written notification of denial to
appeal. Make sure the SSA gives you a written denial; you cannot appeal an oral
Q. Should I bother to appeal?
A. Since a large number of claim decisions are reversed on appeal, it is probably
worth your time and effort. Also, if you do not appeal, the claim decision becomes final
and you give up the chance to appeal later.
Q. Do I need a lawyer to appeal?
A. A lawyer is not required for an appeal. However, you should consider the
complexity of your case and the amount of money you are seeking before deciding
whether to hire one or not. If your appeal goes all the way to a federal court, you probably
should have a lawyer to represent your interests. Attorneys who take Social Security cases
usually receive up to 25 percent of back benefits if the claim is successful. The SSA must
approve the fees. An experienced advocate who is not an attorney can also represent you.
Q. If I cannot afford a lawyer but want legal representation, what should I
A. You may be able to obtain legal representation through an organization that
provides legal services to low-income or older persons. Check with your local agency on
aging or bar association to see if such an organization exists in your area.
Q. What if I just need some assistance in my appeal but do not want to hire a
A. Check with your state or local area agency on aging. They may be able to
direct you to a community group that can provide help.
Q. How do I appeal?
A. The first step in the appeal process is to file a written request for
reconsideration of your claim within sixty days of the notification of denial, reduction, or
termination of benefits. This reconsideration is an examination of your paperwork by an SSA employee other than the one who first decided your claim. You may add more
documents to your file if you think they will help.
You should receive written notice of the reconsideration decision within thirty
days. However, reconsideration of disability benefits will take longer, usually two to three
Q. What is the next step?
A. If you are dissatisfied with the outcome of the reconsideration, your next step is
to file a written request for an administrative hearing. You have sixty days after the
reconsideration decision to make such a request. Normally, however, the hearing will not
take place for several months.
Q. Who acts as the judge at these administrative hearings?
A. An administrative law judge of the SSA’s Office of Hearings and Appeals will
preside over your case. The administrative law judge is a lawyer who works for SSA but
has not been involved in your claim thus far.
Q. What should I do to prepare for an administrative hearing?
A. Before the hearing you can, and should, examine your file to make sure it
contains every document you have filed. At the hearing, you can represent yourself or be
represented by a lawyer or non-lawyer advocate. You should provide evidence, such as
documents or witnesses, about your medical condition and why you cannot work, and
your own explanation of why the decision at the reconsideration level should be reversed.
The hearing will be a new examination of your case, conducted by an impartial
Q. What if witnesses refuse to appear on my behalf?
A. You can ask that witnesses be subpoenaed (ordered to appear before the judge).
You must request subpoenas at least five days before the hearing.
Q. Will the SSA be represented by a lawyer at the administrative hearing?
A. No, the office does not have a lawyer presenting its side of the case.
Q. How long does it take to receive a decision from an administrative
A. You should find out within two to three months after the hearing. You will
receive a written decision. If your claim is approved, you may be able to collect benefits
dating back to when you filed your original claim. For disability, back benefits may date
as far back as 12 months prior to the application date.
Q. Can I appeal an administrative hearing decision?
A. Yes. You have sixty days to file a written appeal with the SSA Appeals Council
in Washington, D.C. The Council will review the file and issue its decision. You and your
representative do not appear before the Appeals Council, but you can add additional
information to your file. If you wish to appeal the decision further, you must sue the SSA
in federal district court.
Q. Should I file a federal lawsuit?
A. That depends. You must take into account the expense of filing a lawsuit, the
amount of benefits you are claiming, and your chances of winning. And, although you are
not required to have a lawyer, it is highly recommended that you do.
Q. If I do want a lawyer, how do I find one who specializes in social security
A. You can contact your local legal services or Older Americans Act program (see
page xxxx in a later section of this chapter), your local bar association or the district Social
Security Administration office, or call the National Organization of Social Security
Claimants’ Representatives toll-free at 1-800-431-2804.
Q. What if I receive a notice from SSA that I have been overpaid?
A. If you disagree that you were overpaid, make a written request for a
reconsideration of your claim. If you cannot repay the amount, first ask for a waiver
within thirty days of notification of overpayment. You will be asked to fill out an
“Overpayment Recovery Questionnaire.” Try to show that the overpayment was not your
fault, and that you are unable to repay the amount without hardship.
Getting Your Checks
Social Security checks are normally mailed on the first day of each month.
However, the SSA strongly encourages you to have your check deposited directly in your
bank. This is safe and convenient. The money is available a day or two earlier than if you
get a check in the mail. It’s handy if you have trouble getting to the bank. And it makes it
impossible for a thief to take the check out of your mailbox.
Supplemental Security Income
Q. I have virtually no money. I don’t qualify for regular social security or
disability benefits. Can social security help me anyway?
A. The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program pays benefits to persons who
are aged (sixty-five or over), disabled, or blind and who have very limited income and
personal property. The SSI program is run by the Social Security Administration.
However, it is supported with income tax dollars rather than social security taxes on
SSI benefits are not large and the eligibility requirements are strict. You must have
very little income and own very little property. If you think you qualify, check with your
local Social Security Administration office. One of the benefits of getting even a dollar in
SSI is that in most states you become eligible for free medical care through Medicaid.
To apply you will need your social security number, proof of age, and a wide
variety of financial information. You’ll want to have a record of your mortgage and
property taxes, records of your utility costs and food costs, payroll slips, income tax
returns, bank books and insurance policies.
If you are applying because of disability or blindness, you will also need copies of
your medical records. Be sure to have the names and addresses of physicians who have
treated you and hospitals where you have been a patient. If you have worked with a social
service agency, give the name of a worker who knows you.
Q. I think my elderly father is eligible for SSI, but he is much too ill and
confused to visit an office or complete an application. How can he receive benefits?
A. If you know someone who should be receiving SSI benefits but can’t apply for
himself, you can do it for him. However, you will still need to bring all the information
Q. If I am declared ineligible for SSI, are there any benefits I might be eligible
A. Yes. Even if you are not eligible for SSI, you may be able to have your
Medicare premiums, deductible, and co-payments paid for you, depending on the amount
of your income and assets.
Q If I am denied benefits, can I appeal?
A. Yes, the appeals process is essentially identical to appealing a social security
claim, as described above.