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Social Security News

How Does Social Security Determine Your Benefits? Q&A Answers This and More

SSA information specialists tells how to estimate your retirement benefit; explains factors affecting a widow’s benefits; how to apply for disability

April 25, 2013 – Ever wondered how Social Security determines your retirement benefit? Or, wanted to get an idea before you retire of what your benefit will be? These are some basic questions of the program that are answered by Oscar Garcia, Public Affairs Specialist with SSA in this week’s Q&A. For those younger Americans seeking disability under Social Security, he also has answers at the end of this article.

Question:

How does Social Security figure my retirement benefit?

Answer:

Social Security benefits are based on your lifetime earnings. Your actual earnings are adjusted or “indexed” to account for changes in average wages since the year the earnings were received. Then Social Security calculates your average indexed monthly earnings during the 35 years in which you earned the most.

We apply a formula to these earnings and arrive at your basic benefit, or “primary insurance amount” (PIA). This is how much you would receive at your full retirement age.

We use the highest 35 years of earnings to compute an individual's benefit amount. If the individual does not have 35 years of earnings, we will use all of the earnings on the record. We will factor in an annual total of $0.00 earnings for each of the remaining years.

Our website has a worksheet you can use to estimate your retirement benefit. Just click on the list of retirement publications at www.socialsecurity.gov/pubs.

Question:

Is there a way to get an estimate of my retirement benefit without having to create a “my Social Security account?

 

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 Answer:

Yes, you can get an estimate by using our online Retirement Estimator. You can use the Retirement Estimator if you have enough Social Security credits to qualify for benefits and you are not currently receiving benefits on your own Social Security record or any other record.

You can calculate your estimate based on actual earnings and future estimated earnings. The Retirement Estimator will provide your benefit amount at age 62, full retirement age, and age 70. You can also create multiple scenarios to see how different “stop-work” ages impact your benefit amount.

The Retirement Estimator is available at www.socialsecurity.gov/estimator.

Question:

I am a 55 year-old widow. Besides the annual work limit, what are some other factors that can affect being able to receive survivor’s benefit?

Answer:

A widow or widower of a person who worked long enough under Social Security can receive full benefits as early as age 60. Benefits for a widow, widower or surviving divorced spouse may be affected by several additional factors.

If you remarry before you reach age 60 (age 50 if disabled), you cannot receive benefits as a surviving spouse while you are married.

If you remarry after you reach age 60 (age 50 if disabled), you will continue to qualify for benefits on your deceased spouse's Social Security record. However, if your current spouse is a Social Security beneficiary, you may want to apply for spouse's benefits on his record. If that amount is more than your widow's benefit, you will receive a combination of benefits that equals the higher amount.

If you receive benefits as a widow or as a surviving divorced spouse, you can switch to your own retirement benefit as early as age 62. This assumes you are eligible for retirement benefits and your retirement rate is higher than your rate as a widow or surviving divorced spouse. In many cases, a widow can begin receiving one benefit at a reduced rate and then, at full retirement age, switch to the other benefit at an unreduced rate.

Your Social Security benefits as a survivor may also be affected by the Government Pension Offset. This happens if you will also receive a pension based on work not covered by Social Security.

You can find more information about Survivors benefits by visiting our website at www.socialsecurity.gov and clicking on the tab “Survivors” located near the top of our homepage. While on our website you may also want to browse our Frequently Asked Questions section for more details about survivors benefits.

Question:

What information do I need to give to Social Security if I want to apply for disability?

Answer:

The types of information we need include medical records and documentation about your condition. We can make copies of your records and return your originals. 

We need the names, addresses, and phone numbers for any doctors, hospitals, medical facilities, treatment centers, or providers that may have information related to your disabling condition.

In addition, we need the names, addresses, and phone numbers for recent employers and the dates worked for each employer.

It is also a good idea to provide your federal tax return for the past year. This will help you receive credit for any recent earnings that may not appear on your work history at the time.

If you do not have all of the information handy, that is no reason to delay. You should still apply for benefits right away. Social Security can assist you in getting the necessary documents, including obtaining your medical records. It can take three to four months to obtain all your medical records and for us to process an application for disability benefits.  

Just keep in mind that if you do have the information we need, it will probably speed up the time it takes to make a decision.

The fastest and most convenient way to apply for disability is online at www.socialsecurity.gov/applyfordisability.

You can save your application as you go, so you can take a break at any time. If you prefer, you may call our toll-free number, 1-800-772-1213, to make an appointment to apply at your local Social Security office or to set up an appointment for someone to take your application over the phone.

If you are approved for disability benefits, it does not mean you will never be able to work again. In fact, Social Security has special rules called “work incentives” that allow you to test your ability to work. Learn more about disability benefits and take advantage of the helpful “Disability Starter Kit” at www.socialsecurity.gov/disability/disability_starter_kits.htm.

Contact Oscar Garcia

Oscar Garcia is a Public Affairs Specialist with the Social Security Administration. You can direct your questions to him at: SSA, 411 Richland Hills Drive, San Antonio, Texas, 78245. You can also email him at mailto:oscar.h.garcia@ssa.gov.

 

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