Social Security benefits are an integral aspect of millions of Americans' retirement. Around 1 in 5 married couples rely on their monthly checks for at least 90% of their retirement income, according to the Social Security Administration, as do close to half of unmarried beneficiaries.

However, the Social Security program is struggling, and it has been for years. As a result, there is a chance Social Security recipients will see their benefits reduced in the relatively near future. Many experts believe that won't happen for at least a decade, but a new study suggests benefit cuts might be closer than you think thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Older couple looking at documents and using a calculator

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The state of Social Security

To understand what may happen with your future Social Security benefits, it's important to first understand how the program works. The Social Security Administration (SSA) funds benefits through payroll taxes, so the taxes workers are contributing right now are paid out to current retirees as benefits.

With so many baby boomers retiring and older retirees living longer lifespans, the SSA has been paying out a lot of money in benefits. In fact, it's paying out more in benefits than it's collecting in taxes. To avoid either raising taxes or cutting benefits right now, the SSA has opted to dip into its trust funds -- the Disability Insurance (DI) trust fund and the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) trust fund -- to bridge the gap and continue paying out full benefits.

However, that money won't last forever, and the SSA Board of Trustees estimates that those trust funds will be depleted by 2034. When that happens, the SSA will have to rely primarily on payroll taxes to fund benefits, and those taxes are only expected to cover around 76% of future benefits.

It's important to note, though, that the Board of Trustees' estimate doesn't account for the impact the coronavirus pandemic is having on Social Security. Thanks to COVID-19, benefits could be cut even sooner.

How COVID-19 affects Social Security

More than 36 million Americans lost their jobs over just a two-month span as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and there's no telling just how long it will be before the virus is contained and life can go back to normal.

All these job losses may have a significant impact on Social Security as well. There are a lot fewer workers paying payroll taxes right now, which means there's not as much money coming in for the SSA to pay out as benefits. As a result, the SSA will need to take more cash from its trust funds to cover current retirees' monthly checks, which could cause those trust funds to run dry even sooner than expected.

Nobody can predict exactly how long it will take for the trust funds to be depleted, because it's unclear how long the coronavirus pandemic will last. However, new research from the Bipartisan Policy Center estimates that the DI trust fund will run out of cash sometime during the next few years, and the OASI trust fund will be depleted by 2028.

What does that mean for future retirees? It could mean that unless Congress steps in to find a solution, benefits could be reduced within the next decade when the trust funds run out of money.

Preparing for benefit cuts

There's no guarantee that benefits will be reduced in the future, because Congress could decide to raise taxes to ensure payroll taxes will be enough to cover benefits once the trust funds are depleted. But if your retirement depends on your Social Security checks, it's wise to have a back-up plan in place in the event that benefits are reduced.

Try your best to build a robust retirement fund, because that's one of the best ways to ensure you won't have to over-rely on your benefits in retirement. You might need to work a few years longer than you planned to save as much as you need, but that may be a worthwhile sacrifice if you can enjoy your senior years comfortably.

Another option is to delay claiming Social Security benefits. The longer you wait to file for benefits (up to age 70), the more you will receive each month. The differences in your monthly checks can be drastic, too, depending on what age you claim. For example, if you have a full retirement age of 67 years old and you claim at 62, your benefits will be reduced by 30%. However, if you wait until age 70 to claim, you'll receive your full benefit amount plus an additional 24%. If benefits are reduced in the future, these cuts may not be quite so painful if you delay claiming.

The future of the Social Security program is uncertain, but it's wise to prepare for the worst just in case. By going into retirement with a plan for how you'll handle benefit cuts, you'll be prepared for anything.