Social Security benefits: Questions & answers guide

When people hear “Social Security,” it’s common to think “retirement.” While that’s not inaccurate, there is much more to Social Security than retirement income. Between benefits for retirees, their spouses, disabled individuals and survivors of the deceased, Social Security is a valuable program for many in the U.S.

Social Security benefits questions and answers

What is Social Security and who is eligible to receive Social Security benefits?1

Social Security is a U.S. federal program that provides enrolled individuals with a source of income when they become unable to work or earn sufficient wages on their own. There are three types of Social Security benefits: 

  • Retirement (spousal benefits available in some cases)
  • Disability
  • Survivors

You are eligible to receive Social Security benefits in the United States once you’ve accumulated 40 work credits — as long as you also pay Social Security taxes (this includes certain government employees or those who are self-employed). Non-U.S. citizens who are living legally in the United States and who have earned benefits can also collect Social Security.
 

What if you live abroad?

Most U.S. citizens who live in foreign countries after they retire can receive Social Security benefits. However, the U.S. government will not send Social Security payments to those living in Cuba or North Korea. Additionally, Americans living in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan must qualify for an exception in order to receive benefits while living abroad.

Learn more about collecting Social Security benefits while outside the United States.
 

What are Social Security credits? How are they earned?

Social Security credits determine eligibility and benefit amounts in retirement. In 2021, earning $1,470 in income qualifies as earning one Social Security work credit.2 You are eligible to earn up to four credits per year. Most people need 40 credits (10 years of work) to qualify for Social Security benefits — though younger individuals require fewer credits for disability benefits or for their family members to receive survivor’s benefits.

Who can qualify for Social Security benefits? 

To qualify for Social Security retirement benefits, in most cases:

  • You must be 62+ years old, or disabled/unable to work, and
  • You must have sufficient credits earned throughout your working life.3

To qualify for Social Security spousal retirement benefits:

  • You must be married to a retired worker (or were married for 10+ years and are now divorced), and
  • You must have a child under age 16 or a disabled child in your care, or
  • You are 62+ years old.2

To qualify for Social Security disability benefits if you are under the age of 62:

  • You must be 18+ years old and unable to work due to physical or mental disability, and
  • Your condition is expected to last at least a year or may result in death.3

You may still qualify for Social Security disability benefits without earning the required 40 credits, depending on the circumstances. Your lifetime earnings and benefits help determine your monthly disability benefit amount.

To qualify for Social Security survivor’s benefits:

  • You must be a widow or widower who is 60+ years old (or 50+ years old and disabled), or
  • You must be a widow or widower (at any age) caring for the deceased’s child who is under the age of 16 or disabled, or
  • You must be a surviving divorced spouse (under certain circumstances), or
  • A dependent parent who is 62+ years old, or
  • You must be an unmarried child of the deceased and are:
    • Under 18 years old (or between 18-19 years old, but a full-time student in an elementary or secondary school), or
    • 18+ years old with a disability that occurred before you turned 22.3

Can I qualify for benefits based on my spouse’s income?

Short answer: in some cases.

Retirement benefits are based on your own earnings record. Spousal and survivors Social Security benefits, however, are based on your spouse’s earnings, whether the spouse is deceased or divorced from you.
Keep in mind that you may be eligible for spousal Social Security or survivors Social Security benefits as well as your own retirement benefit  — but, Social Security won’t let you add these amounts together. Instead, you will receive whichever benefit is larger.

When should I take my Social Security retirement benefits?

Waiting to collect Social Security benefits can be beneficial if you’re able to do so. While the age to receive your full retirement benefit is 66-67 (depending on year of birth), you can begin collecting Social Security benefits as early as age 62. But each month you wait to start (up until age 70) increases your eligible benefits.4

Once you reach full retirement age, you’re entitled to 100% of the benefits calculated from your lifetime earnings. If you begin collecting Social Security at age 70, your full retirement benefit will be 32% larger.3

However, waiting may not be the right choice for everyone. Your advisor will help you determine an approach that reflects your options and your personal situation. For example, they may consider:

  • Varying tax rates on Social Security income
  • Capital gains and IRA withdrawals
  • Health issues
  • Life expectancy in your family history

View our Social Security Infographic for more information

How is my Social Security benefit amount calculated? 

Another common Social Security benefits question is how payments are calculated based on your lifetime earnings. To account for changes in average wages each year, the Social Security Administration (SSA), indexes your income using the national average wage index. 

The SSA calculates your average indexed monthly earnings (AIME) based on the 35 years in which you earned the most. A formula is applied to these figures and generates your basic benefits, otherwise known as your primary insurance amount. This primary insurance amount (PIA) is what you would receive at your full retirement age. If you were born between 1955 and 1959, full retirement age is between age 66 and 67. For those born in 1960 or later, full retirement age is 67.5  
 

What is the maximum Social Security benefit per month?

The maximum monthly amount of Social Security retirement benefits an individual can receive in 2021 is:

  • $3,895 for someone who files at age 70
  • $3,113 for someone who files at full retirement age 
  • $2,324 for someone who files at 62

Visit the Social Security website to view more detailed information.

How do I apply for Social Security benefits?

There are two ways to apply:

The SSA recommends applying four months before you want your Social Security retirement benefits to begin. Learn more about the Social Security program and application process.

How can an Ameriprise financial advisor help?

Your Ameriprise financial advisor can answer any Social Security benefits questions you may have, as well as walk you through your Social Security distribution options, point out benefits you might be missing out on and help you incorporate Social Security into your overall financial picture. They will review how scenarios such as working longer or delaying benefit collection can help maximize the benefits for you, a spouse or family members.

An advisor can help you determine when to start collecting Social Security benefits.

Or, request an appointment online to speak with an advisor.

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1 Sources consulted: https://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10024.pdf, https://www.usa.gov/about-social-security, https://www.debt.org/retirement/social-security/
2 Source https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/retirement/planner/credits.html
3 Source: https://www.ssa.gov/OP_Home/handbook/handbook.html 
4 Source: https://www.ssa.gov/planners/retire/1960.html 
5 Source: https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/retirement/planner/agereduction.html
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