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

Key Takeaways

  • Social Security retirement benefits start as early as age 62, but the benefits are permanently reduced unless you wait until the full retirement age of 66 or 67. Payments are for life.
  • Social Security spousal benefits pay about half of what your spouse gets if that's more than you'd get on your own. Payments are for life.
  • Social Security survivor benefits go to certain family members of deceased workers. The benefit duration varies.

There are three key groups of people who receive Social Security benefits, including retired workers, survivors of retirees, and families of people with disabilities.

Social Security Retirement 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 (OASI).

There are a number of sub-categories.

Retired Workers

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.

You must be "insured" under the Social Security program before you or your family can receive retirement, survivors, or disability benefits.

Social Security retirement benefits can start as early as age 62, but your benefits will be permanently reduced by up to 30%. You can collect the full benefit if you wait until full retirement age, which is age 66 if you were born between 1943 and 1954. The age gradually increases for those born later, up to age 67 for those born in 1960 and later.

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

Social Security Spousal Benefits

The spouse of a retired worker 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 a lower benefit than they would receive from the spousal benefit.

  • Be at least 62 years old, or
  • Be any age if you are taking care of your spouse's child who is also receiving benefits.

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—age 66 to 70—depending on the date of birth. You can start taking benefits as early as age 62, but the benefit will be permanently reduced.

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

Social Security Benefits for Children

A minor child or an adult child with a disability may be eligible for Social Security benefits if the parent receives retirement or disability benefits. The child must be one of the following:

  • Under the age of 18
  • A high school student up to age 19
  • An unmarried adult who became 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.

Social Security Survivor Benefits

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

Social Security Survivor Benefits for Spouses

Surviving spouses can receive benefits based on the benefit amount the deceased was receiving from Social Security at the time of death.

  • A surviving spouse can get reduced benefits as early as age 60. Full benefits are available at full retirement age (age 67 if you were born in 1962 or later). Benefits are for life.
  • A surviving spouse who has a disability can collect benefits as early as age 50. The benefit begins upon the death of the retiree and continues until the surviving spouse is age 65. At that point, they are eligible for the aged benefit.
  • Surviving spouses can get benefits at any age if they take care of their spouse's child who is under 16 or disabled and receives Social Security benefits.
  • Surviving divorced spouses who are age 60 or older can get survivor benefits if the marriage lasted at least 10 years. Divorced spouses don't have to meet the length-of-marriage rule if they take care of the former spouse's child who is younger than age 16 or disabled.

5 million

The number of widows and widowers receiving monthly Social Security benefits based on their deceased spouse's earnings record.

Social Security Survivor Benefits for Children

A 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).

Social Security Survivor Benefits for Parents

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

Social Security Disability Benefits

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 the 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.

Social Security Disability Spousal Benefits

The spouse of a disabled worker may qualify for benefits. To qualify, the spouse must be:

  • At least 62 years old (also applies to divorced spouses if the marriage lasted at least 10 years), or
  • Any age and care for the spouse's child who is under age 16 or disabled.

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.

Social Security Benefits for Child of Disabled Parent

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. To qualify, the child must be:

  • Unmarried and younger than 18, or 19 if still in high school, or
  • Unmarried and age 18 or older if the child has a disability that began before age 22.