Social Security refers to a federal program that provides financial support to individuals falling into specific categories. The Social Security Administration (SSA) oversees this program. Elderly retirees (age 62 and over), disabled workers, dependents, and surviving family members can qualify for social security benefits. However, not everyone can get these benefits so it is crucial to understand what makes you qualified to receive social security.

As an overview, the program is publicly funded through social security taxes that get taken out of the paychecks of American workers. Put simply, you pay into social security via taxes so you can reap the benefits if needed after retirement.

One important thing to remember is that the money you pay into social security does not get held specifically for you in the future. It is instead an endless cycle where the benefits go to those who need it right now and you will receive payment from people who pay into the program when it is your time to collect in the future.

What Qualifications are Necessary for Social Security Benefits?

Whether someone qualifies for social security benefits and the amount allotted for payment depends on several factors like the individual’s earnings, birth year, and age when applying for the benefits.

Here are some important things to know about social security benefit qualifications:

  • Each year that a person works and pays taxes, they receive credits towards social security based on how much they earn. You can get up to four credits each year and the amount that you need to make to get a credit can change.
  • As of the year 2021, when someone makes $1,470 in a calendar year they will get one credit. So, in order to get all four credits for the year you need to make at least $5,880. Again, this amount may change and usually increases every year.
  • To claim social security benefits later on, you generally need at least 40 credits, which equates to 10 years of work where you pay taxes. Less credits are required if you are younger and claim social security benefits via disability or a survivor claiming benefits after a death occurs.
  • The benefit amount will be based upon how much you earned through your life. Making more money will generally result in a higher benefit payment amount.
  • Some factors that can affect benefit amount include gaps in work history and lower earning amount throughout your working history.
  • You can claim your full amount once you reach the age of retirement. This varies based on the year you were born, but is generally 66-67 years old. If you claim before this (from age 62 to the age of retirement), you will not receive the full benefit amount.
  • You can delay receiving social security benefits past your age of retirement. This will result in an increased payment onced you do start claiming the benefits.

There are just some general facts about social security benefits. Other factors can affect the process. For example, survivors claiming benefits will have differing qualifications. This will be discussed in more detail below.

What are Social Security Benefits for Survivors?

When someone dies who would have been eligible for social security benefits, some of their family members can claim social security survivor benefits. The 40 credit requirement will need to be established at the time of death.

In general, the following individuals will qualify for social security survivor benefits:

  • Widows and widowers: The person will need to be at least 60 years old. If they are disabled, the age requirement drops to 50 years old. If the widow or widower is taking care of the deceased person’s child who is age 16 or younger or disabled, then there is no age requirement to claim social security survivor benefits. So, you could be 45 years old and qualify in this instance.
  • Children: The deceased person’s children who are under 18 and unmarried, those between 18-19 who are enrolled full-time in an elementary or secondary school, or those over 18 who became disabled before age 22 can claim social security survivor benefits.
  • Parents claiming from children: A parent who was dependent for half or more support from their child who dies can qualify for social security survivor benefits.
  • Divorced ex-spouse: These individuals can receive social security survivor benefits if they were married to you for at least 10 years. The general age requirement of 60 years old (50 years old if disabled) still applies. No age requirement applies when the ex-spouse is taking care of the deceased person’s child who is entitled to benefits. In addition to this, the ex-spouse cannot be remarried unless this happens after age 60 (age 50 if disabled) and will not qualify for their own social security benefits in an amount equal to or higher than that of the deceased ex-spouse.

What Amount of Benefits Can Survivors Receive?

The amount survivors can receive in social security benefits will depend on their age and status. This will generally be between 75% to 100% of the deceased person’s social security benefit amount. For example, widows and widowers at the age of retirement will receive the full benefit amount, while the same categories of individuals who are younger will receive a little less.

Just keep in mind that there are limits on the amount that your family can receive for the social security survivor benefits overall. This cap prevents too many people claiming these benefits after one person’s death. While the limit varies, it is usually about 150% to 180% of the deceased person’s basic benefit rate.

What is the Application Process for Social Security Benefits?

Under normal circumstances, an individual who wishes to receive their social security benefits should apply for them about four months before they want the benefits to start being paid. However, disabled individuals and survivors should apply immediately after eligibility kicks in.

The application can generally be completed online via the SSA website. If you are applying as a survivor, you may not be able to apply online so be sure to check what the current process is when you are ready to submit an application.

Survivors should also contact the SSA to report the death as soon as possible. This cannot be done online. A lot of times, the funeral home will report the death for you if you provide them with the deceased person’s social security number.

Additionally, to apply for social security benefits you will need to submit certain documents. What is required will depend on your status. Here are some examples of what you may need:

  • Birth certificate;
  • Marriage certificate;
  • Divorce certificate;
  • Social security number;
  • Proof of citizenship;
  • Most recent W-2 form or tax return; and
  • Bank account and routing number for direct deposit purposes.

This list is not exhaustive and will depend on if you are applying for your own benefits, are disabled, or are seeking survivor social security benefits.

Do I Need to Hire a Lawyer to Help With Social Security Benefits?

Generally, a person can apply for social security benefits online without assistance. However, hiring a government lawyer would be helpful if you are disabled or applying for survivor benefits. A lawyer can also generally ensure that all requirements are met, help streamline the process, and address any issues with accessing social security benefits.