We pay into Social Security throughout our working lives, but we usually can't touch the money until we turn 62. This can seem a long way off, especially for those who are counting on Social Security to help them make ends meet. What many people don't realize is that there are exceptions to the 62 rule. If any one of the following scenarios applies to you, you can start claiming Social Security ahead of schedule and, in some cases, right away.

1. You're disabled

Social Security is best known as a retirement benefit, but it also helps disabled workers and their families cover their basic expenses. The federal government has strict rules about what it considers being disabled, and you must submit a claim requesting benefits to begin the approval process.

The Social Security Administration will review your case to verify that you are indeed disabled and that you have worked the appropriate number of years to qualify for benefits. The time you must have worked depends in part on your age at the time of your disability, but it is never more than 10 years. 

Social Security card with $100 bill

Image source: Getty Images.

The Social Security Administration will check in with you periodically to verify that you are still disabled. If your condition improves to the point where you can do substantial work again, it may end your disability benefits, but you will still be eligible for Social Security retirement benefits when you turn 62.

2. Your spouse or ex-spouse has died

Surviving spouses are able to claim Social Security benefits based on their spouse's work record at 60 or as early as 50 if they're disabled. If you're caring for your deceased spouse's or ex-spouse's child who is disabled or under 16, there is no age limit on when you can apply. Widows and widowers must have been married to their spouse for at least nine months in order to qualify, and ex-spouses must have been married for at least 10 years. Those claiming Social Security at 50 must also meet the administration's criteria for disability benefits. If you remarry before 60, or 50 if you're disabled, you will no longer be eligible for survivor's benefits based on your deceased spouse's work record. Remarrying after this age will not impact your survivor's benefits.

A former spouse's benefits will not affect the benefits of the deceased worker's new spouse if he or she remarried. Those interested in claiming benefits based on their deceased ex-spouse's work record must still meet the age requirements that current spouses must meet.

3. You're a qualifying child

Qualifying children of deceased and disabled workers and workers 62 and older who are eligible for Social Security benefits may qualify for a benefit of their own. Qualifying children are children who are:

  • Unmarried.
  • Under 18 or up to 19 if still enrolled full-time in an elementary or secondary school.
  • 18 or older if they became disabled before 22.

Under certain circumstances, the Social Security Administration will also pay benefits for stepchildren, grandchildren, stepgrandchildren, and adopted children. Though uncommon, if you become the parent or guardian of a child after you've already begun claiming Social Security benefits, you can notify the administration, and the child may be eligible for benefits.

How to apply for Social Security benefits

If you think you may qualify for Social Security under one of the circumstances above, notify the Social Security Administration over the phone or in person. You might also be able to apply online in some circumstances, but those hoping to claim survivor's benefits may not do this. You must know your Social Security number and have your birth certificate and your most recent W-2 or tax return if you're self-employed. If you're claiming benefits on someone else's work record, you will need that person's most recent W-2 or tax return.

Have your marriage certificate or divorce certificate and the deceased worker's death certificate on hand if you're claiming benefits on your deceased spouse's or ex-spouse's work record. You'll need your children's birth certificates, too, if you're claiming benefits for them or for yourself because you're caring for your deceased spouse's or ex-spouse's minor or disabled children.

If you are a disabled worker interested in claiming Social Security benefits, you must provide the following:

  • Names, addresses, and phone numbers of doctors, hospitals, and clinics you've visited and the dates of your visits.
  • Name and dosage of all medications.
  • Any medical records you have in your possession.
  • Lab and test results.
  • A summary of where you worked before your disability and what kind of work you did.

It takes a little bit of time to begin receiving checks once you've applied for Social Security benefits, especially if you're applying for disability benefits, because the government must investigate your claim, so don't wait to submit your paperwork.

There's no way to know exactly how much you'll receive in benefits per month until you contact the Social Security Administration because benefits are based on a complex formula that takes into account your average monthly income, adjusted for inflation (or that of the person whose work record you're claiming benefits on). When you apply for benefits, the agency should notify you how much you will receive per month. 

There's no reason not to claim these benefits if you qualify. You could owe taxes on some of them, depending on how much you earn during the year, but these monthly checks could make a big difference to your financial well being, especially if you're struggling to care for yourself or your children following your spouse's passing. Check with the Social Security Administration to see what you need to do in order to begin claiming benefits.