Author: Prairie State Legal Services
Last updated: December 2009
What It Is: An insurance program that provides income to retired or disabled workers, their dependents and survivors.
Where to Apply: Social Security Administration (SSA)
Who May Be Eligible: Retired workers who are 62 years old or older, disabled workers, and spouses and dependents of retired, disabled or deceased workers.
Most workers pay into Social Security while they are working. Your pay stub will show deductions for the Federal Insurance Contribution Act (FICA). These deductions are the money or "premiums" which you pay into the Social Security system. For every contribution you make to Social Security, the employer makes an equal contribution. The SSA then uses that money to pay people who are eligible to receive benefits.
To become eligible, you must have worked for a minimum length of time before claiming benefits. The length of time varies depending on whether you are asserting eligibility for benefits based on disability, your age at the time of disability and whether you are seeking retirement benefits.
The amount of money you receive from Social Security depends upon the amount of money you made while you contributed to Social Security and whether you choose to begin receiving retirement benefits at 62 or to wait until you reach full retirement age. Every so often, the SSA adjusts the amounts of monthly benefits to keep pace with the cost of living.
If you are found eligible for Social Security based on disability, you may be entitled to a retroactive benefit. In general, you are entitled to receive benefits going back to the first month following the end of a waiting period. The "waiting period" is the five month period starting with the first month in which you were both insured for disability and "disabled." The waiting period can start no earlier than the 17th month before the month you apply.
You may be eligible for Social Security benefits if you are:
In addition to income benefits, a surviving spouse or dependent child entitled to dependent's benefits is also entitled to a lump sum payment to help pay burial costs. The surviving spouse or dependent child must have been living with the deceased at the time of his or her death to obtain this benefit.
Your eligibility for Social Security benefits is based on your work record. When you work and pay into Social Security, you earn credits toward Social Security benefits. The number of credits you need to get retirement benefits depends on when you were born. If you were born in 1929 or later, you need 40 credits (10 years of work) to qualify.
In order to qualify for disability benefits, generally you need 40 quarters of work, and 20 of them must be within the past 10 years before the onset of your disability.
You are entitled to receive retirement benefits:
If you receive "early" retirement benefits, you may not be entitled to Medicare until you are 65.
To qualify for Social Security benefits on the basis of disability, the disabled person must be disabled, as defined by Social Security. For a person to be "disabled," he or she must be unable to work due to a physical or mental impairment which has lasted or is expected to last for at least 12 months or to result in death.
In deciding whether you have a disability, SSA uses a five step analysis:
When you choose to work after you retire, your earnings up to a certain level will have no effect on your Social Security benefit check. After earnings exceed the limit, however, your earnings will reduce your Social Security Check, as shown on this chart.
|Your Age||Earning Limit (Does Not Affect Benefits)||After Limit is Reached|
|Under full retirement age||Up to $14,160*||For every $2.00 over the limit, $1.00 is withheld from benefits.|
|At full retirement age or older and retired||No limit on earnings||--------------------------------------|
|Year you reach full retirement age and actually retired||Up to $37,680*||For every $3.00 over the limit, $1.00 is withheld from benefits until the month you reach full retirement age.|
Under SSDI rules, you can have a trial work period. This means you can test yourself to see if you can work without having to worry right away that you will lose your disability benefits. The trial work period can be no longer than nine months, during which time your benefits will not be affected no matter how much you earn.
The nine months do not need to be consecutive. In 2010, a trial work month includes any month in which you earn more than $720 (with automatic yearly increases), or in which you work more than 40 hours on the job if you are self-employed.
Once you have completed nine trial work months in any 60 month period, SSA will review your earnings to determine if you remain eligible for SSDI.
If you work on a sustained basis after the end of the nine month trial work period, it can affect whether or not SSA still considers you to be "disabled." In 2010, if you have average monthly earnings over $1000 after the trial work period, then the SSA may decide that you are no longer disabled and may terminate your eligibility for benefits.
If you receive SSDI, it is wise to contact your local Social Security office before you start working so that you can find out how it will affect your case.
You can apply at your local Social Security office or by calling Social Security at 800-772-1213 (toll-free).
Sometimes SSA tells people they have received more Social Security benefits than they were entitled to receive. This is called an overpayment. Usually, SSA will require you to pay back any overpaid benefits, and they will reduce your current benefits until the money is paid back.
If you receive a notice of overpayment, you have the right to appeal, if you think the decision is wrong, or if you believe that the amount of the overpayment is less than what SSA alleges.
Also, you can ask at any time that you not be required to pay back an overpayment. This is commonly called a request for a waiver. You may request a waiver by completing a written form available at the SSA office.
In order to qualify for the waiver, you must prove that:
Keep a record of dates you call and the names of the representatives to whom you speak.
If you are not eligible for a waiver, you may be able to pay back the money you owe Social Security a little at a time. You can ask Social Security to take back some money each month from your Social Security check.
If SSA denies your application for Social Security benefits or reduces or terminates your benefits, you may want to appeal the decision. You also can appeal if you believe that SSA takes other wrongful actions against you, such as finding that you owe an overpayment or requiring a representative payee.
If you decide to appeal, here is how you do it:
If you appeal a termination or reduction of Social Security benefits within 10 days, you may be able to keep your benefits during the appeal. If you miss the 10 day deadline, your benefits will stop or be reduced while your appeal is pending.
At each stage of the appeal process described above, there is a time limit within which you must file an appeal. If you miss that deadline, the SSA will consider your appeal only if you show that you had good cause for the delay. "Good cause" includes such things as serious illness which prevents you from attending to your business, a death in the family, a fire or other emergency which disrupts your home. It also includes situations where you do not understand or know about the need to file an appeal because of your physical or mental condition, or because of your inability to read or communicate.
If you realize you have missed an appeal deadline, you should file your appeal in writing as soon as possible. You should include with your appeal a written explanation of why the appeal was not filed in time and a request for an extension of time in which to file the appeal.
You may be represented by a lawyer, a paralegal, a friend or a relative in the appeal proceedings. Only a lawyer can represent you in federal court.
As of May 2001, the Debt Collection Improvement Act (DCIA) of 1996 allows the Treasury Department and Social Security to reduce Social Security benefits of individuals who owe non-tax federal debts. Notices will be sent by the federal agency to whom money is owed, not by Social Security. It is important that beneficiaries contact the agency involved to try to make payment arrangements. You will have no right to appeal the reduction of your benefits with the Social Security Administration. The first $750 of benefits will not be reduced.
Examples of federal non-tax debts: student loans and food stamp overpayments.
Social Security Administration
To apply for benefits or to file an appeal, contact your local Social Security office, or call 800-772-1213 (toll free) or 800-325-0778 (TTY) nationwide for information and assistance.
Additional information on Social Security can be found on the SSA website. At this website, you can also find a Benefit Eligibility Screening Tool (BEST). You can use this tool to find out if you could be eligible for benefits from any of the programs Social Security administers.
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