Social Security FAQs

What Clients May Ask

One of the most important steps clients can take in planning for retirement is to understand their Social Security benefits. Here are some common questions they may ask.


How Did Social Security Start?

The Social Security Act was signed into law by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in August 1935. Initially, it only paid a single lump-sum retirement benefit. Monthly payments were implemented in 1940. Ever since, Social Security has been evolving.

In its current form, Social Security is a collection of programs that include:

  • Retirement benefits
  • Disability benefits
  • Survivors benefits
  • A lump-sum death benefit

The first monthly Social Security check was issued to Ida Mae Fuller in 1940 for $22.54. Over the course of two years, she had contributed only $24.75 to the program.



What Is the Average Monthly Benefit?

It depends on who’s receiving it.

2018 Estimated Average Monthly Benefit1
All retired workers $1,404
Aged couple, both receiving Social Security $2,340
Widowed mother and two children $2,771
Aged widow(er) alone $1,336
Disabled worker, spouse, and one or more children $2,051
All disabled workers $1,197
1Source: Social Security Fact Sheet: 2018 Social Security Changes. SSA Press Office. October 2017. Amounts include cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), which is 2.0% for 2018.


Who Is Eligible for Benefits?


Benefits are available to workers who have earned 40 credits over the course of their careers. A worker may earn only four credits each year and must meet minimum earning requirements.

Example: A worker must have earned $1,320 to earn one Social Security credit. Earnings of $5,280 (4 x $1,320) would make the worker eligible for the maximum four credits. This means most workers become eligible for Social Security benefits after 10 years of employment.



The number of credits needed for a survivor to qualify for benefits depends on his or her age when the eligible worker dies. The younger the survivor, the fewer credits one needs—but no one needs more than 40 credits.

Eligible survivors include the worker’s:

  • Widow(er)
  • Children
  • Parents

However, survivors must meet certain age and/or financial requirements. For specifics, see Publication 05-10084, Survivors Benefits.


Workers with Disabilities

Workers qualify for Social Security disability coverage if they cannot do their normal work (the type of work they did before becoming disabled) and cannot adjust to other work because of the medical condition. The disability must last or be expected to last for at least one year or be expected to result in death. Workers must also meet different age-based earnings tests to qualify.

Tests for Workers with Disabilities

  • Recent Work Test: Determines how much recent work is needed to qualify based on the age disability began.
  • Duration of Work Test: Determines the number of years the person has worked in order to receive benefits, and will differ by attained age.


When Can I Start Receiving Benefits?

Workers can begin receiving benefits at age 62. However, benefits will be greater if the individual waits until he or she attains FRA (full retirement age), and greater still if the individual delays until after his or her FRA (up to age 70). FRAs are determined by the year the person was born.

Full Retirement Age (FRA)

Year of Birth1 
1943-1954 66
1955 66 and 2 months
1956 66 and 4 months
1957 66 and 6 months
1958 66 and 8 months
1959 66 and 10 months
1960 or later 67

1If born on January 1 of any year, refer to the previous year

Source: 2017

Social Security benefits are paid in the month following the month for which they are due. For example, if a client’s 62nd birthday is July 15, his or her first month of entitlement is August. Therefore, he or she would receive the first check in September.


Can I Receive Benefits While Working?

Yes. However, if your client has not attained FRA, monthly benefits may be temporarily reduced or eliminated. Once FRA is attained, the Social Security Administration will recalculate the client’s benefit amount to give credit for any months in which he or she did not receive benefits due to earnings, which may increase the benefit amount.


How Are Benefit Amounts Determined?

Benefits are calculated based on the amount of money earned over one’s lifetime. Specifically, the Social Security Administration adjusts a person’s income to account for changes in average wages over the years worked. Then, average indexed monthly earnings are used to determine a primary insurance amount (PIA). This is the amount a person receives each month if he or she starts benefits at full retirement age.


Why Might I Want to Delay Benefits?

While a person can start benefits as early as age 62, deferring can result in higher monthly checks.

If a client starts benefits at: Monthly checks equal:
Age 62 70%–75% of the PIA
Full retirement age (FRA) 
100% of the PIA
After FRA The PIA plus an 8% credit for each year deferred, up to age 70.
(At age 70, monthly checks can equal up to 132% of PIA.)


Let’s look at an example of how delaying benefits could affect a couple’s income. We’ll assume:

  • FRA for both spouses: Age 66
  • Husband’s benefit at FRA: $2,000/month
  • Wife’s benefit at FRA: $1,000/month

Note: When a spouse dies, the surviving spouse inherits the larger of the two retirement benefits.

Age Action Taken Monthly Benefit
Wife Husband
62 Claim at 62 $750 $1,500
66 Wait until FRA
$1,000 $2,000
70 Capture delayed retirement credit $1,320 or $2,640 if husband dies
and he delayed benefits until age

Total difference in combined benefits by delaying until age 70 instead of starting at age 62:
$1,710/month or $20,520/year.

While delaying Social Security benefits can increase the amount clients receive each month, it’s not for everyone. Your client’s current need for income, family situation, and health should all be considered before making a decision.


Are There Other Sources of Lifetime Income Aside from Social Security Benefits?

There are only three sources of retirement income that are designed to last for a client’s entire life:

  • Social Security
  • Defined-benefit pension plans
  • Annuities

Whether or not a client decides to delay taking Social Security benefits, he or she will want to ensure there is enough income throughout their retirement years to cover essential expenses. Social Security benefits alone may not be enough, and few workers today have defined-benefit plans that guarantee lifetime income.

Annuities can be purchased as a source of lifetime income that will supplement Social Security benefits. Depending on the type of annuity, it can provide:

  • A lifetime payout option providing income the client cannot outlive.
  • Protection from market volatility by offering steady annuity income payments that remain unaffected by changes in the financial markets.
  • Tax advantages, including tax-deferred compounding of any earnings inside the annuity and, if purchased with after-tax dollars, a portion of income will be non-taxable.
  • A guaranteed death benefit ensuring the client’s beneficiaries receive at least the amount originally invested minus an adjustment for withdrawals.

Guarantees are subject to the claims paying ability of the issuing insurance company.


How Do I Apply for Social Security?

Deciding when to start benefits—and calculating whether a client has enough lifetime income for his or her needs—are important steps in planning for a secure retirement. Once a client is ready to apply, he or she can either:

  • Visit
  • Call the Social Security Administration at (800) 772-1213.

To collect the full benefit, make sure your client applies three months before he or she wants to receive the first payment.

Helpful Resources

Social Security Administration (SSA)
Phone: (800) 772-1213

  • Apply for benefits online:
  • Find a local SSA office:
  • AARP website:
Additional Social Security Topics


Want to Talk Further on this Topic?

The Retirement Strategies Group, subject-matter specialists with advanced degrees and designations such as CFA®, CFP®, ChFC®, CLU®, and JD, are ready to help.

(800) 722-2333, ext. 3939
In New York, (800) 748-6907, ext. 3939


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