Tens of millions of Americans receive Social Security benefits, and many of them rely on the program for the majority of their income in retirement. Yet it can be difficult to get the help you need to understand and make the most of your Social Security benefits. With that in mind, here are three tips that can shed some light on the Social Security program and how you can get the benefits you deserve.
1. Help with filing for Social Security benefits
Filing for Social Security benefits is easy. You can file online for various Social Security benefits, including retirement, spousal, or disability benefits. Alternatively, you can visit your local Social Security office or call the Social Security Administration's toll-free number at 1-800-722-1213, or 1-800-325-0778 for TTY service.
Those resources will help you with your application, but they won't necessarily tell you whether it's a smart idea to file for benefits at a particular time. As you'll see below, the amount you receive in benefits can vary depending on when you apply for benefits, and the representatives at the SSA aren't allowed to give you personalized advice. What they can do, though, is provide you with the information you need to make an informed choice for yourself. So if you run into difficulty or are just confused about some aspect of your benefits, you can use the SSA as a resource.
2. Help with figuring out what your Social Security benefit will be
In general, your benefit amount depends on your career income. The SSA takes the average earnings of your 35 highest-earning years (after adjusting for inflation) and then runs that average through a formula to determine your basic benefit amount. From there, your benefit is lowered if you claim before you reach your full retirement age. If you delay benefits beyond your full retirement age, then your benefit will rise.
To get specific amounts, the easiest thing to do is to check your Social Security statement or use one of the SSA's calculators. The statement, which is available through the mySocialSecurity website, will tell you what your benefit will be if you retire early at 62, take benefits at full retirement age, or delay benefits until 70. It also gives estimates on disability benefits, as well as any benefits that your surviving family members could get after your death.
The SSA also has calculators to help you project your benefits. The Social Security Quick Calculator takes your current income, estimates your past earnings history, and makes assumptions about your future earnings to give you an expected benefit. The SSA's Online Calculator allows you to enter more of your own personal data, including earnings for each past year, which will provide a more accurate estimate based on your actual work history. The Detailed Calculator requires installation on your computer, but it gives the most complete picture of all benefits available.
3. Help overcoming problems with Social Security benefits
When it comes to Social Security, most people are concerned with retirement benefits, and getting those benefits is a fairly simple process. In general, either you're entitled to retirement benefits or you're not, and there's little subjectivity involved.
With disability benefits, however, things are a lot more complicated. You have to demonstrate that you qualify for Social Security disability, which includes establishing that you have an injury, illness, or other impairment that will last at least 12 months or result in your death. That disability must also prevent you from doing a different type of job, and it's critical that you have the documentation to back up your claim.
If the SSA rejects your disability claim, you can appeal the decision. That involves either filing a Social Security disability appeal online or requesting an appeal hearing through a local office or on the toll-free number. Reconsideration first happens within the SSA, but you can then get a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge if you disagree with the SSA's decision. Further review is available either through an Appeals Council Review or through a lawsuit in a federal district court.
Typically, if you choose to have a lawyer or other representative work on your behalf, you'll have to pay a fee yourself. However, the SSA must typically approve fee agreements, and the right to compensation is limited in some cases. For more information, read this SSA publication on the appeals process.
It can be hard to find the help you need with your Social Security benefits. Keep these three tips in mind, though, and you'll have a starting point for most of the areas in which you're most likely to need help.
Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.