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
How does Social Security figure my retirement
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
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.
Is there a way to get an estimate of my
retirement benefit without having to create a “my Social Security
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
currently receiving benefits on your own Social Security record or any
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.
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?
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
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
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
What information do I need to give to Social
Security if I want to apply for disability?
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
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
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
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
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
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