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If you were born earlier than 1938, you became eligible for the full amount of your retirement benefits at age 65. That age is gradually being increased: if you were born between 1943 and 1954, your full retirement age will be 66; it will be 67 if you were born 1960 onward. No matter when you were born, you will be able to retire at age 62 and get a smaller percentage of your full benefit. The closer you are to your full retirement age when you start collecting your benefit, the larger the fraction of your full benefit you will get.
The amount of the retirement benefit you are entitled to at your retirement age is the key to all other benefits under the program. The retirement benefit is based on covered earnings, which will be updated (indexed) to reflect the increases in average wages that have occurred since the earnings were paid. Your largest 35 years of adjusted earnings are averaged together and a formula is applied to the adjusted average to figure the benefit rate.
If you delay your retirement past your retirement age, or if you do not receive a benefit for some months after your retirement age because of high earnings, you will get a special credit that can mean a larger benefit.
If your spouse is between ages 62 and his or her retirement age, he or she can draw a reduced benefit; the amount depends on the number of months before retirement age that he or she starts getting checks. (He or she will get this amount for the rest of his or her life, unless you should die first; then he or she can start getting widow's or widower's benefits, described below.)
If the spouse is entitled to a worker's retirement benefit on his or her own earnings, he or she can draw whichever amount is larger. If the spouse is entitled to a retirement benefit that is less than the spouse's benefit, he or she will receive his or her own retirement benefit plus the difference between the retirement benefit and the spouse's benefit.
If you have children under age 19 attending a primary or secondary school, or a son or daughter who became totally disabled prior to reaching age 22, they will receive a benefit equal to half your full retirement benefits (subject to maximum monthly payment that can be made to a family). Children who can qualify for benefits include your biological or legally adopted child, or dependent stepchild or grandchild. If your spouse is caring for your child, and the child is under 16 or disabled (and under the age of 22), he or she is eligible for benefits.
In general, the highest retirement check that can be paid to a worker who retired at 65 in January 2002 is about $1,660 a month. Maximum payment to the family of this retired worker was about $2,324.40 as of January 1997.
If you are divorced, you can get Social Security benefits (the same as a former spouse, widow, or widower), based on your former spouse's earnings record if you were married at least 10 years and if your former spouse has retired or become disabled. If a divorced spouse has been divorced for at least 2 years, the spouse may be eligible for benefits even if the worker is not receiving benefits. However, both the worker and spouse must be age 62 or over and the worker must be fully insured. In either case, the divorced spouse must be unmarried.