Social Security Benefits

The Social Security Act originated with the English Poor Laws and other efforts to create pensions for aged workers. Social Security was “The “New” Alternative” to other movements such as “Do Nothing,” “Volunteerism.” and “Expand Welfare.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law on August 14, 1935. In addition to several provisions for general welfare, the new Act created a social insurance program designed to pay retired workers age 65 or older a continuing income after retirement.

The Social Security Administration pays five major categories of benefits: retirement, disability, family benefits, survivors’ benefits, and Medicare.

Issues involving Social Security disability focus on medical criteria (e.g., one’s ability to work), and are best referred to attorneys who specialize in them. Social Security retirement, family, and survivors’ benefits seldom create problems for consumers because those benefits are paid based on an individual’s work record or the work record of a spouse or parent. Still, elder law attorneys have familiarity with these programs because they impact retirement planning. A useful guide is The Social Security Handbook, available online at

[a] Insured Status
The starting point in determining whether you are entitled to retirement or disability income is determining whether you are “insured.” Social Security only pays retirement benefits to persons (or their survivors) who are “fully insured;” persons applying for disability benefits must be “currently insured.”

The Social Security Administration determines if a person is “fully insured” status, “currently insured” status, or “insured for disability benefits” based on the applicant’s work record. Workers earn Social Security credits, or “quarters of coverage,” under the Social Security rules. Further, some employment situations do not provide Social Security coverage. Generally, federal employees who were hired before January 1, 1984 are covered by the Civil Service Retirement System instead of Social Security. Also, employees of state and local governments are not covered unless their governments elected to be covered.

Most people earn the maximum of four credits or “quarters of coverage” per year. To count as a quarter of cover-age, the worker’s earnings must meet a minimum level that is adjusted annually. In 2021, the minimum earnings needed to earn a quarter of coverage are $1,470. Assuming a worker earns that much or more during each quarter of the year, then the worker would earn four credits during that year.

A person is fully insured if he has 40 quarters of coverage. Thus, a worker could become fully insured after ten years of employment. Alternatively, he can be fully insured if he has at least one quarter of coverage for each calendar year after 1950 or the year in which he attained age 21, if later, and prior to the year in which he attains age 62 or dies or becomes disabled, whichever occurs earlier. An exception in the calculation exists for some workers who had a “period of disability” during this time. A disabled person is fully insured if he or she had at least one quarter of coverage each year after turning 21, through the year when he or she became disabled.

[b] Retirement Benefits: Full Retirement Age, Early or Delayed Retirement, and the Earnings Test
A worker is entitled to retirement insurance benefits if he or she is at least age 62 and is fully insured, and has filed an application for retirement insurance benefits.

A worker can become entitled to Social Security retirement benefits (a) at full retirement age, (b) early, or (c) can delay benefits.

“Full retirement age,” i.e., the age at which an individual may retire and receive full retirement benefits, is age 65 for those born in 1937 or earlier. However, a gradual increase in “full retirement age,” from 65 to 67, began in 2000 and will be complete in 2022. (See Table, “Age for Full Retirement Benefit,” below.) For example, persons born between 1943 and 1954 will be eligible to receive full Social Security retirement benefits at age 66. Persons born in 1960 or later will be eligible to receive full retirement benefits at age 67.

Age for Full Retirement Benefit
Worker is Eligible for Full Benefit at age— Applicable to Workers who Attain age 62 in year—

65 1994–99
65 and 2 months 2000
65 and 4 months 2001
65 and 6 months 2002
65 and 8 months 2003
65 and 10 months 2004
66 2005-2016
66 and 2 months 2017
66 and 4 months 2018
66 and 6 months 2019
66 and 8 months 2020
66 and 10 months 2021
67 2022 & later


If a worker is at least 62 years old, he or she can apply early retirement benefits. Early retirement reduces the amount of the monthly retirement benefit for the retiree’s lifetime. Retirement benefits are reduced by five-ninths of one percent for each month before full retirement age (up to 36 months) in which an individual receives retirement benefits. A worker who retires at or after age 62 but more than 3 years before his full retirement age will have benefits further reduced by five-twelfths of one percent for each month beyond 36.

Conversely, delayed retirement (i.e., the individual works past his or her full retirement age) increases the amount of the monthly retirement benefit. The amount of increase depends on when the individual would reach full retirement age and is affected also by the age at which he finally begins receiving retirement benefits. The maximum delayed retirement credit is reached by delaying application for benefits to age 70. Social Security Handbook, § 720. See also the “quick calculation” page on the Social Security Administration’s Web site, at You can calculate your reduced benefit for early retirement or increased benefit for late retirement on the Social Security Administration’s website. Most individuals are well advised to speak with a financial planner regarding their projected income needs before applying for early retirement.

Cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs), which became automatic in 1972, and wage-indexed amounts are published annually in the Federal Register. They are also posted on the Social Security Administration’s website. Included there are links to the Table of Automatic Increases (such as the retirement earnings test discussed below), the Old Age Survivors and Disability Insurance (“OASDI”) Contribution and Benefit Base, Formula for the Primary Insurance Amount, and Table of Bend Points.

The Primary Insurance Amount (or “PIA”) is the monthly amount payable to a retired worker who begins to receive benefits at full retirement age or (generally) to a disabled worker. This amount, which is related to the worker’s average monthly wage or average indexed monthly earnings (AIME), is also the amount used as a base for computing all types of benefits payable on the basis of one individual’s earnings record.

The PIA formula is the mathematical formula used to determine Social Security benefit payments. The PIA is equal to the sum of 90 percent of AIME up to the first bend point, plus 32 percent of AIME above the first bend point up to the second bend point, plus 15 percent of AIME in excess of the second bend point. Automatic benefit increases are applied be-ginning with the year of eligibility. For an explanation of these terms, see

The Social Security Administration will provide a free estimate of an individual’s Primary Insurance Amount. A statement is mailed to all workers age 25 and older annually. Otherwise, an individual may submit Form SSA-7004, “Request for Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement,” to his local Social Security office to obtain this information. A blank copy of this form is available at local Social Security offices or by calling the Social Security Administration. The form may also be completed online, at A Social Security Detailed Calculator, available online at, will estimate an individual’s Primary Insurance Amount and other benefits.

A retirement earnings test applies only to people who are receiving early retirement benefits, i.e., benefits payable before the full retirement age. Social Security benefits are decreased if the recipient’s earnings exceed a certain level, the “retirement earnings test exempt amount,” and if the recipient is under his full retirement age. There are two exempt amounts, applicable either be-fore or after the worker reaches age 65. These amounts are increased annually based on increases in the national average wage index. The Social Security Administration withholds $1 in benefits for every $2 of excess earnings of a worker between age 62 and age 64. It withholds $1 in benefits for every $3 of excess earnings for individuals age 65 or older who have not yet reached the full retirement age. Earnings in and after the month the individual attains full retirement age are not subject to the earnings test.

[c] Benefits for Spouse
If the spouse of a primary beneficiary begins to receive benefits at the spouse’s full retirement age, based on the primary beneficiary’s work record, the spouse will receive 50 percent of the primary beneficiary’s primary insurance amount (PIA). If the primary beneficiary begins to receive benefits prior to his full retirement age, however, the spouse will receive less than 50 percent of the primary beneficiary’s primary insurance amount.

Assuming a primary insurance amount of $1,000 at full retirement age, for example, for a primary beneficiary who was born in 1940 and began receiving benefits at age 62, the primary beneficiary would receive $1000 and his or her spouse would receive $500. Spousal benefits will also be reduced for the spouse who takes early Social Security retirement benefits based upon the primary beneficiary’s primary insurance amount. See Social Security Handbook, § 724, and the “Retirement benefits and reductions by year of birth” page on the Social Security Administration’s Web site, at

[d] Disability Benefits
Disability benefits can be paid to eligible individuals (i.e., persons who have not yet reached full retirement age and who have sufficient Social Security quarters of coverage) who are “disabled.” Generally, in 2021, earnings of $1,310 or more per month are considered substantial gainful activity and will cause a worker to be ineligible for disability benefits. See the “Social Security Update” page on the Social Security Administration’s Web site, at See also the SSA’s entry page into the world of disability benefits, at

A worker is disabled and entitled to monthly cash benefits beginning with the first month in which the disabled worker meets all of the following conditions:

• meets the definition of “disability”;
• has filed an application for disabled worker’s benefits;
• has insured status for disability;
• has completed a 5-month waiting period or is exempted from this requirement; and
• has not attained full retirement age.

A worker has insured status for disability if he has at least 20 quarters of coverage during the 40-quarter period ending with the quarter in which he is determined to be disabled. There are exceptions to this rule for individuals who become disabled before age 31, or who are blind. Social Security Handbook, § 208. (An excellent resource is the Social Security Red Book, which serves as a general reference source about the employment-related provisions of the Social Security Disability Insurance and the Supplemental Security Income Programs for educators, advocates, rehabilitation professionals, and counselors who serve people with disabilities.)

Disability” is defined as the inability to engage in any “substantial gainful activity” by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(c)(2)(A). A person must not only be unable to do his or her previous work but cannot, considering age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. It is immaterial whether such work exists in the immediate area, or whether a specific job vacancy exists, or whether the worker would be hired if he or she applied for work.

The benefit payable to the disabled worker is generally equal to the primary insurance amount, adjusted by cost-of-living increases. The actual benefit payable will be reduced (1) by workers’ compensation or disability benefits paid under a federal, state, or local law or plan; or (2) if the worker becomes entitled to disabled worker’s benefits after commencing receipt of a reduced widower’s or retirement insurance benefit. The benefit amount based on the disabled worker’s earnings record includes years through the year prior to the on-set of the individual’s disability. Calculations exclude some years in which the individual had the lowest earnings; this may range between zero and five years, depending on the age at which the individual became disabled. The “computation years” are defined in the Social Security Handbook, § 703.

For disabled individuals who are at-tempting to re-enter the workforce, the disability program includes incentives to smooth the transition, including continuation of benefits and health care coverage while a person attempts to re-turn to work. See “The Work Site” entry page on the Social Security Administration’s Web site, at

Apply for Disability Benefits Online

[e] Family Benefits
If a worker is eligible for retirement or disability benefits, other members of the worker’s family might receive bene-fits, too. These include: the worker’s spouse if he or she is at least 62 years old or is under 62 but caring for a child under age 16 (see § 3.03[2][c]); and the worker’s children if they are unmarried and under age 18, under 19 but still in school, or 18 or older but disabled. If the worker is divorced, his or her ex-spouse could be eligible for benefits on the worker’s record.

[f] Survivors Benefits
When a worker dies, certain members of his or her family may be eligible for benefits if the worker had earned sufficient Social Security quarters of coverage. The family members include: a widow(er) age 60 or older, or age 50 or older if disabled, or any age if caring for a child under age 16; the worker’s children if they are unmarried and under age 18, or under age 19 but still in school, or age 18 or older and disabled; and the worker’s parents if the worker was their primary means of support. A special one-time payment of $255 may be made to the worker’s spouse or mi-nor children upon the death of the worker. If the worker is divorced, his or her ex-spouse could be eligible for a widow’s benefit on the worker’s record. See Social Security Handbook, Chapter 4 “Survivors Benefits.”

In addition to the benefits described above, the Social Security Administration also oversees the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, a welfare program, for aged, blind and disabled individuals who do not qualify for other Social Security benefits, or who’s benefits are below the SSI benefit rate. Apply for SSI Online

Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports

For more programmatic information, please see reports published by the Congressional Research Service.

CRS works exclusively for the United States Congress, providing policy and legal analysis to Committees and Members of both the House and Senate, regardless of party affiliation.

Legislative History

The Congressional Green Book includes a legislative history for Social Security through most of the 115th Congress. For prior legislative history, see prior editions of the Green Book.

Social Security Number Fraud Prevention Act of 2017 (P.L. 115-59)

The Social Security Number Fraud Prevention Act of 2017 generally prohibits agencies of the federal government from mailing documents containing full Social Security numbers (SSNs) by September 15, 2022. The law also requires agencies to provide annual reports to Congress that include a listing of documents the agency sent in the previous year containing full SSNs and an update on the agency’s progress in implementing the law.

Strengthening Protections for Social Security Beneficiaries Act of 2018 (P.L. 115-165)

The Strengthening Protections for Social Security Beneficiaries Act of 2018 made a number of changes to the SSA’s representative payee program, including:

  • Requiring the SSA to make annual grants to state Protection and Advocacy systems to conduct all performance and monitoring reviews of representative payees on behalf of the SSA.
  • Waiving the requirement to file an annual accounting form for representative payees who are (1) parents or legal guardians living with their child or adult child who has a disability, or (2) spouses.
  • Requiring the SSA to identify represented minor beneficiaries in state foster care and re-determine the appropriateness of their representative payee in certain instances.
  • Directing the SSA to study ways of improving coordination with state Adult Protective Services programs and of sharing information with state guardianship courts.
  • Clarifying that in situations where the minor beneficiary is in foster care and the state is the representative payee, the state is liable for the repayment of any overpayment incurred.
  • Allowing adult beneficiaries to designate one or more individuals to serve as their representative payee should the SSA determine that the individual needs a payee in the future. The SSA must still assess the designee’s suitability to serve as a payee prior to appointment.
  • Prohibiting individuals convicted of certain felonies from serving as a representative payee as well as prohibiting beneficiaries with their own representative payee from serving as the representative payee of others.
  • Requiring the SSA to reassess its order of preference for selecting representative payees.

The Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act (P.L. 115-174)

Section 215 of the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act requires the SSA to develop a database, or modify an existing database, to allow certain financial institutions to verify consumers’ personal information against the SSA’s records with the consumer’s electronic consent. All costs of the development or modification and operation of the database are funded through user fees.

Tribal Social Security Fairness Act of 2018 (P.L. 115-243)

The Tribal Social Security Fairness Act of 2018 allows Tribal Councils to voluntarily enter into Social Security coverage agreements with the SSA. The bill also allows Tribal Council members to receive Social Security credit for Social Security taxes paid prior to establishment of a coverage agreement as long as these contributions were made timely and not subsequently refunded.

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