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Social Security Benefits Demystified: Your Top Questions Answered

Dana Larsen
By Dana LarsenMarch 26, 2012

Understanding your social security benefits can help you better plan for retirement. In today’s depressed economic climate, planning in advance is crucial. Social Security Administration Specialist, Kirk Larson, provides A Place for Mom readers with social security benefit insight and expertise. Learn more.

A Place for Mom’s Senior Living Advisors are often asked questions about social security retirement benefits, eligibility requirements and how to qualify for spousal and survivor benefits. Social Security Administration Public Affairs Specialist, Kirk Larson, answers some of the top questions A Place for Mom receives from families who are exploring how to finance their senior living and care options.

Top Social Security Benefits Questions

1. At what age do people qualify for social security retirement benefits?

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You can qualify for retirement benefits as early as age 62 and receive reduced benefits, or you can wait until full retirement age to claim 100% of your benefits (age 66 for someone born between 1943-1954, or age 67 for someone born after 1960).

For every single month you file early, before your full retirement age, you reduce your benefits by about one-half of a percent.

2. At what age do people qualify for social security survivor benefits?

There are a number of different types of survivor benefits. Determining when someone can file can be very complex. It might make more sense to go through the different options of when someone qualifies.

3. Okay, that sounds like a good idea. Let’s go through the different scenarios. At what age does a surviving spouse receive benefits?

A widow/widower can receive benefits in the following situations:

  • At any age, if he or she is caring for the deceased worker’s minor child and that minor child is under the age of 16, or disabled
  • When he or she reaches full retirement age, he or she can receive 100% of the deceased benefit
  • If he or she was married to someone for over 10 years and the marriage ended in divorce, there are some qualifying factors, though further research would be needed to determine eligibility

The best place to find additional information on this subject is at the Social Security webpage.

4. At what age does a surviving child receive benefits?

A child can receive benefits in the following situations:

  • A deceased worker’s unmarried child/children who are younger than age 18 (or up to age 19 if they are attending secondary school full time) can receive benefits
  •  Children can get benefits at any age if they were disabled before age 22 and remain disabled

5. And when is a parent eligible to receive survivor benefits?

A parent can receive survivor benefits in the following situations:

  • A deceased individual’s dependent parents can receive benefits if they are age 62 or older
  • For parents to qualify as dependents, however, the deceased worker would have had to provide at least one-half of their support

If you believe you may qualify for a survivor benefit, always contact social security for more in-depth information.

6. How do people find out/calculate how much they get from social security?

One of the most common questions I receive is, “How much am I going to get from Social Security?”

To calculate your benefits you can go to our Retirement Estimator. The estimator will access your Social Security earnings history and then allow you to make future projections on how much you will earn before reaching age 62.

Many people wonder how their benefit is figured. Basically, we take all the money you earned in your lifetime and make adjustments for inflation to bring your work history up to a “more even playing field.” By comparing all the years, we look for the highest 35 years and base the benefit on an average of those years.

7. Can mom get any of dad’s social security benefits, even if they are divorced?

The short answer is “yes,” but there are a number of factors involved.

If dad is alive, mom would need to qualify in the following ways to be eligible:

  •  Be unmarried currently in most situations
  •  Have been married to the former spouse for at least 10 years with the marriage ending in divorce
  •  The former spouse would have to be at least age 62
  • Mom would have to be at least 62 and not getting more money on her old social security record. Technically, mom is potentially eligible for up to 50 percent of what her former spouse is eligible for, depending on her age and whether she qualifies in each of the scenarios discussed above
Research is key to understanding these benefits and if they can assist in covering long-term care costs, to avoid financial planning mistakes.

8. Can mom get any of dad’s social security benefits, after he has died, if they were divorced?

In a death situation, mom would need to qualify in the following ways:

  •  She would need to have been married to her former spouse for at least 10 years with the marriage ending in divorce
  •  She would need to be at least age 60, or age 50 and disabled
  •  She is not already entitled to a higher benefit on her own record
  •  If she is currently married, she could file for benefits on a prior spouse record, but if she remarried after the age of 60 (or 50, if found to be disabled), she is potentially eligible for up to 100% of what her former spouse is eligible for, depending on her age

Social Security Benefits Resources

Remember, the information above is only a guide.

If you think you may qualify for benefits, contact the Social Security Administration for more detailed information. In addition to the website, you can call between 7:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. and speak to one of our service agents at 800-772-1213.

Kirk Larson, Social Security Administration Specialist

About the Author:

I am the Western Washington Public Affairs Specialist for the Social Security Administration and have worked with the agency for over 19 years in both technical and managerial roles. I have worked at our field offices, the SSA 800 service and as a regional expert for both our retirement and disability centers. I have presented Social Security information in Washington and California, have had dozens of articles published and have appeared on a number of TV and radio shows to discuss various Social Security issues. I have a degree in Business Administration from California Polytechnic University at Pomona.

How has your understanding of social security benefits helped you plan for retirement? Share your story in the comments below.

Dana Larsen
Dana Larsen
(800) 809-0113
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