MOST PEOPLE associate Social Security benefits with retirement, but you might be eligible for other benefits depending on your circumstances. In this article we will look at a few of the available programs.

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Since retirement benefits are often first in mind, let’s take a brief look at these. As your career progresses, you will pay a portion of your earnings into the Social Security system. This could be via your paycheck or self-employment taxes. Employers, including yourself if self-employed, will make matching contributions.

As you work, you earn credits that translate into Social Security benefits at a later date through the use of a formula. You can earn up to 4 credits per year depending on the amount of income you earn. Generally, it takes 40 credits (10 years of work) to be eligible for retirement benefits.

You can start receiving Social Security at various ages. The benefit amount depends on the age you start to collect. For people born between 1943 and 1954, your full retirement age is 66. Full retirement age increases in two-month increments thereafter, until it reaches age 67 for people born in 1960 or later. You can begin collecting benefits at age 62, but there will be a reduction in the amount. You also can begin benefits after full retirement age and will earn delayed retirement credits up until age 70. Delayed retirement credits can be as much as 8% each year.

When considering when to start benefits, it is important to decide if starting benefits early at a lesser amount outweighs starting collecting later at a larger amount. There are other factors to consider, such as your health.

As mentioned, there are other types of Social Security benefits. One is disability. The Social Security Administration (SSA) defines disability as a physical or mental condition severe enough to prevent a person from performing substantial work of any kind for at least a year. It is a very strict definition and you may not get benefits for a temporary disability. It is also important to note that benefits won’t start until the sixth full month after the start of your disability. Claims will take time to process as well.

Benefits can also be for your family. After you start receiving retirement or disability, your family members might also be eligible for benefits. These are based on your earnings record. Beneficiaries could include spouses, former spouses and children. Social Security disability benefits can be as high as 50 percent of your total benefits. Keep in mind that there is an overall family limit for children, which is about 150 to 180 percent of your full retirement benefit amount.

Social Security also provides survivor benefits. When you die, your family members might be eligible for benefits based on your earnings record. The benefit may be available to your widow or widower, ex-spouse, children and parents. Your widow(er) may also receive a one-time $255 death benefit.

Social Security benefits can be applied for online at the SSA website, ssa.gov. You can also call (800) 772-1213 or make an appointment at the local SSA office. It is suggested you apply up to three months before you want your benefits to start. For survivor or disability benefits, be sure to apply as soon as you are eligible.

It is helpful to have your documents in order before applying. You may need a birth certificate, W-2 forms and verification of your Social Security number and citizenship. Family members will need similar documents when they apply. To review your account, you can sign up for a mySocialSecurity account at ssa.gov. Your account will have a detailed record of your earnings and estimates. Verify your earnings, as your benefits are based on these, and you will want them to be accurate.

Marc A. Hebert, MS, CFP, is a senior member and president of the wealth management and financial planning firm The Harbor Group of Bedford. Email questions to Marc at mhebert@harborgroup.com. Your question and his response might appear in a future column.

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