Most people think of Social Security in terms of a monthly payments that start arriving when you stop working. But in fact, Social Security is an umbrella term, referring to a U.S. federal program of social insurance and benefits (one of the largest government programs in the world) that pays out hundreds of billions of dollars every year.
The complexity of this huge program makes understanding the various types of Social Security benefits, who they are for – and when they begin and end – a challenge at times. Described below are the three major Social Security benefit programs, who qualifies for them and when.
For a quick primer, see Introduction To Social Security.
Retired Worker Benefits
– Retired Worker
What they are: you are eligible for benefits if you are a retired worker who contributed to Social Security while on the job(s), and so are considered insured, or qualified.
The period needed to qualify is spelled out on the Social Security Administration's website. Basically, it requires one quarter of coverage (QC) for each calendar year after you turn 21 and from 6 to 40 QCs (depending on several factors) overall.
Start: Social Security retirement benefits can begin as early as age 62. But the checks could be up to 30% lower than they would be if you wait until full retirement age (FRA) – 66 for people born between 1943 and 1954; then a gradually increasing age until 67, the FRA for those born 1960 and later. Maximum benefits begin at age 70.
End: your Social Security retirement benefits end when you die.
– Spouse of Retired Worker
What they are: a retired worker's spouse also can receive benefits if he or she meets certain qualifications. These include one of the following:
- taking care of a child under the age of 16
- taking care of a qualified disabled child (or adult) who became disabled before age 22
- being at least 62 years old
A former spouse can also qualify for benefits, if the marriage lasted at least 10 years and he or she remains unmarried. Spousal benefits can be equal to as much as 50% of the retired worker's benefits.
Start: spousal benefits begin when the retired worker begins receiving benefits.
End: benefits continue until you (or your spouse) dies – whichever happens first.
– Child of Retired Worker
What they are: a child can receive Social Security benefits as well. To qualify, your offspring must be one of the following:
- under age 18
- a high school student under age 19
- an adult disabled before the age of 22
Start: dependent child benefits begin when the retired worker's benefits start.
End: dependent child benefits end when the child turns 18 (19, if a high school student) or when the retired worker (or the child) dies – whichever happens first.
Survivor benefits, also paid from the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund, go to the family members of a deceased worker, as outlined below.
– Young Widow(er)
What they are: if the surviving spouse is less than 60 years old and has a child under the age of 16 or a qualified disabled child, he or she qualifies for benefits upon the worker's death.
Start: benefits for your surviving spouse begin upon your death.
End: benefits end when he or she turns 60 (but see below), dies or otherwise loses eligibility.
– Aged Widow(er)
What they are: if your surviving spouse is 60 years old, he or she qualifies for survivor benefits as an aged widow(er).
Start: benefits for an aged widow(er) begin upon your death or when he or she attains the age of 60.
End: when the aged widow(er) dies, benefits stop.
– Disabled Widow(er)
What they are: if the surviving spouse is disabled, he or she can qualify for benefits beginning at the age of 50.
Start: the benefits begin upon your death.
End: benefits convert to those of an aged widow(er) when he or she turns 65 and end upon his or her death.
– Child of Deceased Worker
What they are: a child can qualify for benefits, as long as she or he meets the same conditions as those for a retired worker's offspring (listed above).
Start: benefits begin upon your death.
End: when the child’s status changes – through aging – or the child dies, benefits end.
– Parent of Deceased Worker
What they are: a worker's surviving parent can receive benefits. He or she must be at least 62 years old and have been dependent on the worker for support.
Start: benefits begin upon the worker's death.
End: these benefits stop upon the parent’s death.
Disabled Worker Benefits
The final category of Social Security benefits applies if you suffer an injury or illness that leaves you unable to perform a job. These benefits are paid from the Disability Insurance Trust Fund.
– Disabled Worker
What they are: you may qualify for disability benefits if you worked long enough to be insured and were actively working before becoming disabled.
Start: disabled worker benefits begin six full months after the onset of your disability – as determined by the Social Security Administration. You must be “severely disabled,” meaning you cannot work for at least 12 months.
End: benefits end upon your death or a determination by the Social Security Administration that you no longer qualify.
– Spouse of Disabled Worker
What they are: if you are disabled, your spouse can also qualify for benefits. The spouse must meet one of the following conditions:
- have children under 16 in their care
- have disabled children in their care
- be at least 62 years old
Start: spousal benefits begin when you begin receiving your benefits.
End: benefits end at your spouse’s (or former spouse’s) death, at your death or at such time as the Social Security Administration determines you no longer qualify for disability benefits.
– Child of Disabled Worker
What they are: the child of a disabled worker can also qualify for benefits. He or she must meet one of the conditions listed above, for retired worker's children.
Start: benefits for your child begin when your disability benefits begin.
End: benefits end when your child ages out, when you are no longer eligible for benefits or when you or your child dies.
The Bottom Line
The benefit programs described here make up three programs the majority of Americans are likely to encounter. Note that we have excluded one other common Social Security program, Medicare. For a brush-up on the basics of that, see Medicare 101: Do You Need All 4 Parts?
Before applying for any benefit, speak to a representative of Social Security as well as your financial adviser, if applicable. And for more details, see Types Of Social Security Benefits.