Most people think of Social Security as a monthly payment that starts arriving at retirement. In fact, Social Security is an umbrella term for several federal benefits programs. One of the largest government programs anywhere in the world, it pays out hundreds of billions of dollars to Americans every year.

Key Takeaways

  • Social Security benefits for retirees begin as early as age 62 but the benefits are permanently reduced for those who don't wait until age 66 or 67. Payments are for life.
  • Spouses of retired workers are eligible for payment at about half the retiree's level if that is greater than they would qualify for on their own. Payments are for life.
  • Survivors of workers are eligible for benefits under certain conditions.

There are three big groups of people who receive Social Security benefits, including retirees, the survivors of retirees, and the families of disabled people.

Retired Worker Benefits

This is the most familiar Social Security plan, with roots that go back to 1935 and the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The retirement benefits are paid out of the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund.

There are a number of sub-categories.

Retired Worker

You are eligible for benefits if you are a retired worker who contributed to Social Security during your working years. In other words, you're considered insured, or qualified. The precise periods needed to qualify are spelled out on the Social Security Administration website.

The Social Security program was introduced in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Social Security retirement benefits can begin as early as age 62, but people who sign up early get their benefits permanently reduced by up to 30%. It's better to wait until full retirement age, which is now age 66 for everyone born between 1943 and 1954. The age gradually increases for those born later, ending at age 70 for those born in 1960 and later.

Once you start receiving benefits, they continue for your lifetime.

The Spouse of a Retired Worker

A retired worker's spouse also can receive benefits at a level up to half that of the spouse's benefits. This does not reduce the benefits the spouse receives.

This benefit is generally for spouses who do not have a sufficient work history to be otherwise eligible for benefits, or whose work history entitles them to less independently than they would receive from the spousal benefit.

The qualifications include any of the following:

  • Being at least 62 years old
  • Taking care of a child under age 16
  • Taking care of a qualified disabled person who became disabled before age 22

A divorced spouse may also qualify for benefits if the marriage lasted at least 10 years and the person remains single.

Full spousal benefits kick in at the same age as workers' benefits, 66 to 70 depending on the date of birth.

The spousal benefit continues until one spouse dies. The survivor may then be eligible for survivor benefits.

A Child of a Retired Worker

A minor child or a disabled adult may be eligible for Social Security benefits when the parent retires and begins to receive benefits. The child must be one of the following:

  • Under the age of 18
  • A high school student up to age 19
  • An adult who was disabled before the age of 22

Family income limits may also apply. Dependent child benefits begin when the retired worker's benefits start. They end when the child turns 18 (or 19, if a high school student). The disabled person may then qualify for continuing benefits as an adult who is unable to work.

Survivor Benefits

Survivor benefits go to family members of a deceased worker if they meet various conditions.

A Younger Widow or Widower

If the surviving spouse is under age 60 and has a child under the age of 16 or a qualified disabled child, he or she qualifies for benefits after the worker's death.

The benefits begin at the time of the spouse's death and end when the widow or widower reaches age 60 or the child reaches age 17.

An Older Widow or Widower

If a surviving spouse is 60 years old, he or she qualifies for survivor benefits as an aged widow or widower. Benefits are paid after the partner's death or when the widow or widower reaches age 60. Benefits are for life.

A Disabled Widow or Widower

if a surviving spouse is disabled, he or she may qualify for the spousal benefit as early as age 50. The benefit begins upon the death of the retiree, and continue to age 65. At that point, the widow or widower is eligible for the aged benefit.

The Child of a Deceased Worker

A minor or disabled child of a deceased beneficiary may qualify for continuing benefits for life if the person is disabled, or until he or she reaches age 18 (or 19 if attending high school).

The Parent of a Deceased Worker

A surviving parent who was dependant on a Social Security recipient who has died is eligible to receive benefits at age 62 or older. This benefit is for life.

Benefits for the Disabled

The final category of Social Security benefits applies if you suffer an injury or illness that leaves you unable to work. These benefits are paid from the Disability Insurance Trust Fund.

A person qualifies for disability benefits after working long enough to be eligible for Social Security before becoming disabled. The benefit begins 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.

This benefit is for life unless the Social Security Administration determines that you no longer qualify.

The Spouse of a Disabled Worker

The spouse of a disabled worker may 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

The spousal benefit begins when the disabled worker's benefits start. It ends at the death of the disabled worker or the spouse, or when the Social Security Administration determines the person no longer qualifies.

The Child of a Disabled Worker

The child of a disabled worker can qualify for benefits if he or she meets the conditions for coverage as a retired worker's child. Benefits begin when the parent's benefits and end when the child reaches age 18 or 19 or dies.