How can people get Social Security without working?

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Q. I know spouses can get Social Security benefits even if they’ve never worked. Are there any other ways people are withdrawing money from Social Security who have never contributed? It seems wrong that a person can collect money from something they were never a part of.
— Curious

A. When you work, you contribute to Social Security.

But there are a few ways people can collect benefits without ever contributing: spousal benefits, survivor benefits, disability insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Social Security spousal benefits are partial retirement or disability benefits granted to the spouses of qualifying taxpayers, said Michael Green, a certified financial planner with Wechter Feldman Wealth Management in Parsippany.

“Depending on your age upon claiming, spousal benefits can range from 32.5 percent to 50 percent of your spouse’s primary insurance amount – the retirement benefit to which he or she is entitled at full retirement age, or FRA,” Green said.

He said the calculation for spousal benefits is based on retirement age of both the beneficiary and the spouse, as well as income earned during one’s working life, he said. Regardless of the amount of the spousal benefit, it does not affect the amount of the primary wage earner’s retirement payout, he said.

Nearly six million people receive Social Security survivor benefits, a monthly Social Security payment to family members of a wage earner who has died, Green said.

“They typically go to the spouse, former spouse or children of someone who was eligible for Social Security benefits,” he said. “In some circumstances, parents, grandchildren or stepchildren of a late worker may also qualify for survivor benefits.”

Then there’s Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), which pays benefits to you and certain members of your family if you are “insured,” meaning that you worked long enough and paid Social Security taxes, Green said.

Then Supplemental Security Income (SSI) pays benefits based on financial need for disabled adults and children, he said.

“In summary, these programs are justified reasons for individuals and families to receive Social Security benefits, and should not be thought of as unfair,” Green said.

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This story was originally published on Nov. 4, 2019.

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