Four basic categories of Social Security benefits are paid based upon the record of your earnings: retirement, disability, dependents, and survivors benefits.
Workers who have worked in "covered employment" for a sufficient number of years are eligible for retirement benefits when they retire at age 62. This usually means you must have worked a total of at least ten years of work at a nongovernmental job.
You may choose to begin receiving retirement benefits at any time after you reach age 62. However, there are incentives to wait until your "full retirement age," which is between 65 and 67, depending on the year of your birth. The amount of your benefits will be permanently reduced by a certain percentage if you begin claiming them before you reach full retirement age.
As a further incentive to keep working, the amount of your benefits will be slightly, but permanently, increased for each year you wait until age 70 to put in your claim. However, it doesn't always make sense to delay collecting your benefits (for more information, see If I delay my retirement, will I get more money from Social Security?). Also, no matter how long you wait to begin collecting benefits, the amount you receive will probably be only a small percentage of what you were earning.
If you haven't reached retirement age but have met the work requirements and are considered disabled under the Social Security program's medical guidelines, you can receive benefits roughly equal to what your full retirement benefits would be.
If you are the spouse of a retired or disabled worker who qualifies for Social Security retirement or disability benefits, you and your minor or disabled children may be entitled to benefits based on the worker's earning record. This is true whether or not you actually depend on your spouse for your support.
If you are the surviving spouse of a worker who qualified for Social Security retirement or disability benefits, you and your minor or disabled children may be entitled to benefits based on your deceased spouse's earnings record.
Want More Information?
For information on whether you qualify for these benefits, read Nolo's Social Security FAQ and Social Security: Checking Your Earnings & Benefits.
To learn more about all types of Social Security benefits, and other retirement programs, get Social Security, Medicare, & Governement Pensions: Get the Most Out of Your Retirement & Medical Benefits, by Joseph Matthews (Nolo).