Most Americans see Social Security as a program for retirees, and the vast majority of participants in Social Security became eligible to get the payments they receive when they turned 62. There are several situations where you can get Social Security benefits even if you're much younger than early retirement age. Below, we'll go through the different groups of people who can qualify for Social Security prior to their 62nd birthdays.

1. Disabled workers and their families

Social Security disability insurance covers a huge swath of the American public, and it provides benefits to those who become disabled during their careers. More than 8.7 million disabled people under age 65 receive monthly benefits from Social Security.

In addition, family members can often claim benefits under Social Security disability. Almost 1.6 million children of disabled workers get benefits due to being under age 18, 19 or younger and in high school, or disabled. Spouses can also sometimes receive benefits on account of a worker's disability if they're caring for a child under age 16 who's getting children's benefits under the program. Family benefits last only so long as the age requirements are met, however, and can disappear before the recipient reaches their own early retirement age.

Social Security card with two dice on top of it.

Image source: Getty Images.

2. Surviving spouses and children after your death

If your spouse dies, you can typically take survivor benefits based on your deceased spouse's work history. Unlike retirement benefits, survivor benefits allow surviving spouses to start taking benefits as early as age 60. If the surviving spouse is disabled, then the benefits can start as early as age 50. In addition, surviving spouses can claim benefits at any age if they're caring for a child under age 16 who claims children's Social Security benefits, as long as they don't remarry. The Social Security Administration counts nearly 4 million surviving spouses who claim benefits, but not all of these people make their claims before they turn 62.

Children are also eligible for survivor benefits if they're under 18. They can also get benefits if they're 19 or younger and still in high school. Disabled children are entitled to lifelong survivor benefits as long as their disability began before their 22nd birthday and remain disabled. Nearly 1.9 million children get survivor benefits.

In general, survivor benefits are available for spouses only if they don't get remarried prior to reaching their 60th birthdays, or 50th if they're disabled. After that, remarriage doesn't take away your eligibility for survivor benefits based on the work history of the deceased worker. Again, bear in mind that if your benefits hinge on either being or having a child of a certain age, those benefits will stop once the child is too old to qualify.

3. Younger spouses and children of those receiving retirement benefits

In very limited circumstances, benefits are available to spouses and children after a worker claims retirement benefits, even when those family members are younger than age 62. In order to qualify, the following requirements must be met:

  • Children can receive benefits if they're under age 18, still in high school and 19 or younger, or disabled.
  • Spouses can receive benefits before age 62 as long as they're caring for a child under age 16 who's receiving Social Security benefits on the worker's earnings history.

Only about 670,000 children receive benefits in this manner. Although a larger number of spouses get spousal benefits, most of them are at least 62 years old.

Get what you can

Many people don't realize that Social Security isn't just for those who are in or nearing retirement. By being aware of the situations in which Social Security is available before turning 62, you'll be sure not to miss out on the benefits to which you're entitled.