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Tens of millions of Americans rely on Social Security for a substantial amount of their retirement income, but many people don't understand even the most basic elements of how Social Security works. For instance, one of the most important questions about Social Security is when you can start claiming benefits, and surprisingly, a recent AARP survey found that almost four out of 10 Americans don't know the age at which they become eligible to claim.

The question of when you should claim Social Security benefits involves a host of personalized factors, but when you can claim is an easy question to answer. As you'll see below, there are a few nuances to consider, but the general rule covers the vast majority of Americans.

The magic age: 62
For most recipients, age 62 is the earliest you can claim Social Security benefits. That age applies to anyone claiming retirement benefits based on their own work history. Among those surveyed who didn't know the answer to the question, about three-quarters thought the age was higher, while the remainder believed they could claim earlier.

Some of the confusion about retirement benefits comes from the Social Security Administration's emphasis on full retirement age. The age at which you're entitled to full benefits ranges from 66 for those born between 1943 and 1954 to 67 for those born in 1960 or later. A sliding scale increases the full retirement age by two months per year for those born between 1955 and 1959 to boost it from 66 to 67.

Yet there are also other reasons why people get confused about their Social Security eligibility. For those who are claiming spousal benefits, the same minimum age of 62 generally applies, but there's an exception for those who have a child who is either under age 16 or disabled that allows them to claim at an earlier age. The same exception can apply to ex-spouses who meet the requirements for receiving spousal benefits, with the key being that the marriage must have lasted 10 years or more.

How survivors benefits are different
If you claim survivors benefits based on a spouse's work history, then things get even more complicated. That's because the minimum age for claiming survivors benefits as a widow or widower is generally age 60. If a claiming surviving spouse is disabled, then the earliest age to claim goes down all the way to age 50. Moreover, the same provisions that apply to spousal benefits exist to cover those who are caring for eligible children who are under age 16 or disabled, regardless of the surviving spouse's age.

Finally, it's important to understand that in some cases, children themselves can receive benefits long before they reach retirement age. In fact, most children are eligible only up to a maximum age, although those who are disabled often have the right to receive benefits throughout their lifetimes.

Being smart about claiming Social Security
Claiming Social Security at the earliest age possible typically comes at a price. Early benefits are paid at a reduced rate, meaning that you'll get less than you would if you waited until your full retirement age to claim your payments. In some cases, decisions you make will have an impact on family members as well, especially when it comes to survivor benefits after your death.

Nevertheless, knowing when the minimum age to claim Social Security is will give you a good starting point in assessing your various claiming options. Figuring out the best time to claim takes a lot more effort, but keeping the minimum age in mind will help you avoid unpleasant news based on incorrect assumptions.

Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. 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.