An Overview of Social Security Retirement

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Social Security Retirement benefits (SSR) are based on your work history in the U.S. The Social Security Administration (SSA) is in charge of SSR. You get SSR “credits” when you pay Social Security taxes. Each year the amount you need to earn to get credits goes up slightly. In 2022, you get one credit for every $1,510 you earn. You get up to four credits per year.

The credits you earn stay on your Social Security record. So even if you change jobs, move to a new state, or don’t earn any money for a while, you will still have all the credits you already earned. You must have a certain amount of credits before the SSA can start paying your retirement benefits.

What Work Qualifies?

Most workers in the U.S. (96%) are covered under Social Security. However, some kinds of work either don’t earn credits or have special rules for earning credits.

Jobs that Do Not Earn Credits

Some jobs are not covered by Social Security. Here are some examples of those jobs:

  • Most federal workers hired before 1984
  • Railroad workers who have worked more than 10 years
  • Government workers whose employer is a state or municipality that does not pay Social Security taxes

Jobs with Special Rules for Earning Credits

Some jobs have special rules when it comes to earning credits. Here are some examples of those jobs:

  • Self-employment
  • Working for the military
  • Domestic work
  • Farm work
  • Working for a church

To learn more about these, read “If You Are Self-Employed” and “Military Service and Social Security” on the SSA’s website.

If you have questions about whether a job you had earned credits or has special rules for earning credits, contact the SSA.

When Can I Retire?  

The age you can start getting full SSR benefits depends on the year you were born. If you were born between 1943 and 1954, the age you get full benefits is 66. If you were born in 1955 or after, the age you get full benefits gradually increases from 66 to age 67. For example, depending on your birth year, your full retirement age could be 66 years and six months. To learn the age you have to be to collect full retirement, you can use the SSA’s Retirement Age Calculator.

You may be able to retire early but with decreased benefits, or you may decide to delay retirement and increase your benefits. When you are deciding when to retire, contact the SSA to learn about your choices. Sometimes the month you choose to retire could make a difference in the benefit amount you will get. SSA employees can help you make informed decisions about your retirement.

To retire comfortably, financial experts say you will need between 70 and 80% of your pre-retirement income. SSR only replaces about 40% of pre-retirement income for the average worker retiring at full retirement age. The SSA has a Retirement Estimator tool you can use to get an idea of what your benefits could be based on your earnings record. This is an important factor to consider when you are deciding when to retire.

Early Retirement

If you want to retire before you reach the full age of retirement, you may be able to, but the SSA will reduce your benefit amount. The earliest you can retire is 62, no matter when you were born. The earlier you retire, the more your benefits will be reduced. For example, if you turn 62 in 2022 and retire this year, your benefits will be about 29% lower than if you waited until you reach full retirement age.

Sometimes people have to stop working because of health problems. If you have a work history but can no longer work because of a health problem, consider applying for the Social Security Disability Insurance program (SSDI). If your application for SSDI is approved, the disability benefit amount you will get will be the same as full retirement benefits. Then once you reach full retirement age, the SSA will convert your disability benefits to retirement benefits. To learn more about SSDI, read An Overview of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).

Delayed Retirement

If you choose not to retire when you reach the full age of retirement, you will increase your benefits in two ways. First, you will increase your total lifetime earnings for every year you work after your full age of retirement. Second, your benefit amount will increase by a certain percentage for each year you work after you reach retirement age until you turn 70. The percentage your benefits increase varies, but chances are it won’t be over 10%.

Applying for SSR

Apply for benefits about three months before you want your benefits to start. You can apply for retirement benefits online, or call the toll-free number 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778). You can also choose to visit your local Social Security office to apply in person. If you decide to apply in person, it is best to call ahead to make an appointment to reduce your wait time.

Documents You Will Need

Before applying, you will need to gather a lot of information. Below is a list of some of the most important things you will need:

  • A Social Security card or record of Social Security number
  • A birth certificate or proof of your age
  • Your tax return for last year
  • Your military discharge papers, if you served
  • Your spouse’s birth certificate and Social Security number if they are applying for benefits
  • Your children’s birth certificates and Social Security numbers, if you’re applying for children’s benefits
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status if you (or a spouse or child applying for benefits) were not born in the United States
  • The name of your bank or credit union, the routing number, and your account number, so your benefits can be deposited directly into your account

For a complete list of all the documents you may need, visit Information You Need to Apply for Retirement Benefits on the SSA website. 

You must submit original documents or copies certified by the issuing office. You can mail or take them to an SSA office, where an employee will make copies and return your documents.

If you don’t have an account at a financial institution or prefer getting your benefits on a prepaid debit card, you can get a Direct Express® card. In general, getting a paper check is not an option.

Don’t delay in applying for benefits if you don’t have all the information. If you don’t have a document you need, the SSA can help you get it. Learn more about this by reading the “Getting Your Benefits” section below.

Getting Your Benefits

Once approved, the SSA will send you a letter telling you when your payments will start and how much you will get each month. SSR payments are made the month after they are due. For example, if you tell the SSA you want your benefits to start in May, you will get your first payment in June.

The date you will get your monthly payment is usually determined by the day you were born. If you were born on the first through the 10th, your payments will be the second Wednesday of the month. If you were born on the 11th through the 20th, your payments will be the third Wednesday of the month. If you were born on the 21st or after, your payments will be on the fourth Wednesday of the month.

You will get your payments either by direct deposit into your bank account or Direct Express® Debit MasterCard® account. To learn more about this, read Get Your Payments Electronically on the SSA website.

Returning Wrong Payments

Mistakes happen. If you get more money than you are supposed to, you must return it. You can call or visit a local SSA office for instructions on how to do this.

Working While Receiving Benefits

You can continue to work after you start getting SSR. Depending on your situation, working while getting benefits could either decrease your benefit amount or increase your future benefit amount. If you are younger than full retirement age and start getting benefits while working, this could reduce your benefit amount. This will happen if you make more than the yearly earnings limits. To learn more about the yearly earnings limits, contact the SSA or visit the local office.

However, if you work after full retirement age while getting benefits, this could increase your benefit amount. This will happen if your earnings for the year are higher than in the years the SSA used to compute your benefits. The SSA will recalculate your benefit amount, which could increase your benefits.

To learn more, read Getting Benefits While Working on the SSA website.

Appealing a Decision about Your Benefits

You can appeal most decisions the SSA makes about your benefits. This includes initial benefit denials and changes to your existing benefits. When you appeal an SSA decision, the SSA will review all of the information you sent it and all parts of your case.

To learn more about the appeals process, read The Appeals Process for Social Security Programs.

Paying Taxes on Your Benefits

Some people have to pay taxes on their retirement benefits when they have other, substantial income. This other income can come from wages from a job (including self-employment), interest, dividends, and other sources. Depending on how much income you have, you could have to pay taxes on up to 85% of benefits. To learn more about this, read Income Taxes and Your Social Security Benefit on the SSA website.

Survivor Benefits

When someone who has earned credits from working dies, certain family members are eligible for survivor benefits. Depending on the person’s age when they died, their work history can be as little as one-and-one-half years in order to get benefits. At least 10 years of work history is needed for full survivor benefits.

The family members who are eligible for these benefits include:

  • A widow or widower 60 or older (age 50 or older if disabled)
  • A widow or widower at any age caring for the deceased’s child who is under age 16 or disabled and receiving benefits on their record
  • An unmarried child of the deceased who is younger than 18 or up to age 19 if they are a full-time high-school student
  • An unmarried child of the deceased who is 18 or older with a disability that began before age 22

Under certain circumstances, a surviving divorced spouse, parents, and surviving stepchild or grandchild may be eligible for benefits.

To learn more, read If You Are the Survivor on the SSA website. 

Getting Medicare

Regardless of when you decide to retire, you should apply for Medicare three months before your 65th birthday. Medicare is health insurance for people who are 65 or older. In some cases, medical insurance costs increase if you delay applying for it. To learn more, read An Overview of Medicare, or visit the Medicare website.