; Special Section
Mary Thompson with her nieces Brandi, left, and Brianna Carlos.
I love them like they’re my own,
but I was totally responsible
financially, and that became
Mary Thompson, 55
Q I am 56 and receive Social
Security disability benefits.
At what point will I switch to
regular Social Security? Will
the monthly amount change?
A When you reach full retire-
ment age, your disability benefits
will automatically convert to
retirement benefits. The amount
will remain the same.
Q My friend died at 66. She
worked full time and had not
applied for benefits. What
happens to the money she
contributed to Social Secu-
rity? Can her children claim
A The money people contribute
goes into a fund from which ben-
efits are paid to eligible workers
and their families. These include
a widower, a surviving divorced
husband, dependent parents,
disabled children, and children if
they have not aged out.
Q My man and I have lived to-
gether for over seven years. If
he dies, can I collect his Social
A If your state recognizes your
common-law marriage, then
you’ll likely be eligible for survivor
benefits. But you’ll have to pro-
vide evidence that includes sworn
statements, mortgage or rent
receipts, or insurance policies.
Q Do my Social Security con-
tributions go into a personal
retirement account for me and
A Although many people think
so, the answer is no. Social Secu-
rity operates under a pay-as-you-
go system, which means that
today’s workers pay for current
retirees and other beneficiaries.
Workers pay 6. 2 percent of their
wages up to a cap of $106,800;
employers pay the same. The
money that younger people con-
tribute will pay for our benefits
when we retire.
; When her sister died unexpectedly from a brain an-
eurysm in 2004, Mary Thompson didn’t think twice about
taking in her two young nieces. “I love them like they’re
my own,” says Thompson, 55, who lives in Camden, S.C.
“The only thing—I was totally responsible financially, and
that became hard.”
But about a year after her sister’s death, Thompson
got some relief when she learned that her young nieces
qualified for survivor benefits from Social Security. The
program o;ers monthly payments to the dependents of
workers who have died.
Almost 6. 4 million Americans receive survivor benefits,
including 1.9 million children who get an average of $750
monthly until they graduate from high school or age out.
In Thompson’s case, each of her nieces—Brianna and
Brandi Carlos, now ages 19 and 15—qualified for about
$200 each a month. The cash made all the di;erence to
the family, which was struggling to subsist on Thompson’s
salary from her job as an o;ce assistant at a bank.
“It really did help me a lot with all the things they
wanted to do,” says Thompson. —Michelle Diament
Q My husband and I are getting a divorce. He wants the
settlement agreement to say I
will not get his Social Security
benefits. Can he do that?
A No, he has no control over
your future benefits. You can
qualify for a divorced spouse’s
benefits if you were married at
least 10 years, are now unmar-
ried, are 62 or older, and if any
benefit from your own work
record would be less than the
divorced spouse’s benefit.
Q Cleaning out my mother’s
Q How much money does the
home after her death, we found
Social Security checks from
the 1980s. Can we cash them?
A No. The checks are negotiable
for only 12 months after issue.
U. S. government owe to the
Social Security trust fund, and
will it be repaid?
A To prepare for the boomers’ re-
tirement, Social Security has col-
lected more in taxes than it pays
in benefits. Surplus funds go into
the trust fund and are invested in
U.S.-guaranteed Treasury bonds.
In 2009, the trust fund held $2.5
trillion in bonds and earned 4. 9
percent in interest. These bonds
are just as real as U.S. Treasury
bonds held by mutual funds or
foreign banks. Ultimately, it’s up
to the American people to ensure
the government keeps its prom-
ise to retirees, just as it would to