Explain this Social Security issue to me, please.
September 16, 2019 2:13 PM   Subscribe

How does Social Security work for people who haven't worked/earned much? Details inside.

I'm trying to get a general grasp of how Social Security will work for someone in my life, who:
-- Is in their 50s now and has had lifelong serious mental health issues.
-- Has been on disability at a few points, but isn't now. Future is unknown, but let's just imagine they aren't on disability going forward.
-- Had maybe 10 "regular" working years in their life, where they made a decent salary.
-- Has had many, many years of not working at all, or working very minimally, making well under 20k.
-- Is up to date on their taxes. So they have paid into Social Security in some fashion.
-- Is likely never to have another "regular" working year going forward.
--Is likely to file for Social Security as soon as they are allowed, because the constant precariousness of their financial situation makes it impossible to wait for the higher future payout.

(This is my business because I will likely be this person's lone support system in future.)

Thank you.
posted by BlahLaLa to Work & Money (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have access to this person's details (and permission to access their information)? Because if so you can check this out at the Social Security administration's site which will give you concrete answers that are relevant to your actual person's details. You can also browse this page for answers to some questions about retirement.
posted by jessamyn at 2:19 PM on September 16, 2019 [8 favorites]

ill apologize up front that this is a very partial answer.

my understanding is that SS qualification is determined by the number of qualifying quarters a worker has completed prior to taking the benefit. a quarter can be three calendar months but is not always - if your person in question earned more than the benchmarked quarter, even if they worked less than the full year, they may still get all the qualifying quarters. Basically they take the money you made and divide it by the amount for a quarter in that year (you can get up to 4 for any year, but not more, but you can get all 4 for working less than 12 months if you made the equivalent of 4* the quarterly rate for that year).

if the SSA page jessamyn linked to is not sufficiently helpful, i do know folks who have had surprisingly positive in-person experiences with human employees regarding their Social Security benefits.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 2:22 PM on September 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

I just completed the SSN My Account process. It was largely painless, though I had to unfreeze my Equifax credit report temporarily (they'll ask the user to verify a few odds and ends from the report by way of confirming identity).

The portal will show the lifetime earnings record, anticipated benefits, and disability/Medicare eligibility (eg, "you paid in enough to qualify and would receive $N in monthly benefits. Apply here, etc"). There are also a few FAQs sprinkled throughout.
posted by jquinby at 2:32 PM on September 16, 2019

Thanks for the feedback so far. I guess one additional part of my question is: Is there a bare minimum amount that is paid to people, even if they didn't work or worked only minimally?

It's a touchy subject with this person and I don't know that I'd be able to get their info (with their permission) and log in to establish the specifics for them.

Also forgot to add: this person is single (and always has been) so there are no spouse benefits coming to them. And there are no children involved, if that makes a difference.
posted by BlahLaLa at 2:35 PM on September 16, 2019

With the caveat that Congress could muck around with the benefits whenever they like, this article goes into a bit of detail on the minimum benefit calculation.
posted by jquinby at 2:39 PM on September 16, 2019

You can consult with an attorney with a practice that focuses on Social Security, because you can't rely on any answer here as legal advice for what the options may be in this situation. Generally, my understanding is that it can be much easier to win a claim for SSDI after the age of 50, and working part-time is permissible when receiving SSDI. Your observations as the claimant's support system may be extremely valuable evidence for the SSA, and an attorney can explain more about how the process works.

There are also a variety of other benefits available for people who are unable to work, including health insurance, food stamps, utility assistance, long term care assistance, transportation assistance, caseworkers, etc., so as the main support person, you can also explore the often disconnected and sometimes (but not always) challenging application processes to see if they can help stabilize "the constant precariousness of their financial situation." Local nonprofits and religious organizations can be useful starting points for learning about resources in the local community.
posted by katra at 2:40 PM on September 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

Nthing katra-it would probably be better for your person to apply for ssdi then when they reach minimum retirement age they transition to ss. Thats what happened to a friend of mine who has serious illness and not a ton of years working on the books. Good luck.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 2:46 PM on September 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

A lot of people have come up with social security calculators of varying degrees of accuracy, that could give you a vague idea of what this person’s situation is if you have a vague idea of how much money they earned in what years.

The Social Security Detailed Calculator has to be installed on your desktop and is pretty awful to use last time I tried, but it will give you pretty definitive answers. This spreadsheet version is less up to date and less detailed but easier to use.

There’s also a pretty detailed explanation of how SS works for people with a few years of higher earnings but not a full 30-45 years of work here at Physician on FIRE - it’s from the perspective of an early retiree but a lot applies regardless.
posted by mskyle at 4:23 PM on September 16, 2019

To my reading the key part of your situation is the fact that the person has been disabled for most of their life, even if not officially disabled much of that time. I don't believe the standard social security calculations take that into account -- they just operate on your earnings and when you earn them. If you can get benefits as a disabled person rather than as a person who was able to work but didn't, your situation will be very different.

I do not know, though, how to figure out whether you'd be able to do that, other than by going through the process.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 5:31 PM on September 16, 2019

Has this person considered applying for Social Security Disability? With the medical history you describe which has prevented working for extended periods of time, this might be an option you and this person could consider. Basically, it awards income to people who are disabled no matter their age and doesn't rely on their past income. For example, a young disabled adult who is not able to work can apply and receive a lifetime income, as long as the disability continues.

I don't know the intricacies of this category, but I've known people who have had this for decades. I understand that it's not easy to accomplish, and requires physicians to fill out paperwork and sometimes to push for their patients as advocates, but in this instance it might be reasonable to explore this option. I have also heard that Social Security routinely refuses the initial application and it might require a lawyer to press their case. Unfortunately mental health, being largely unseen by the lay person, can be among the more difficult disabilities to have approved.

On the other hand a previous co-worker had a husband with depression and self-medication issues who had a couple of suicide attempts. He applied for Social Security disability at his wife's insistence - they needed income - and he was approved on the first try.
posted by citygirl at 6:40 PM on September 16, 2019

There are three interrelated programs:
- Social Security retirement benefits (formally old-age benefits. or OAI)
- Social Security disability benefits (DI, or SSDI)
- Supplementary Security Income (SSI).

OAI is what most people think of as Social Security. Generally, you need 10 years of work and to have reached 62. Here's a good overview from Social Security

To qualify for DI, you need to apply and be approved. It's complicated; see this Social Security overview.

To qualify for SSI, you need to be either approved as disabled, for which the standard is the same as for DI, or be 65, and be very poor. Understanding SSI.

The SSI benefit is fixed; the Social Security benefit depends on your earnings history. If you qualify for both, you effectively get the higher of the two.

You said that "Has been on disability at a few points, but isn't now." If the person had qualified for SSDI or SSI disability in the past, it generally makes it easier to return to getting benefits.

As others said, you should consult with a local expert. There are plenty of good disability attorneys; there are many bad ones. Get a recommendation, preferably from a reputable local nonprofit (some of which will offer assistance in applying).
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:52 PM on September 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

Going to take the (I'm guessing) worst-case of this person not wanting to get disability/not being able to:

Someone who hasn't worked at all, or worked very little, would not be eligible for standard Social Security benefits. Full stop. From the text on the 2018 statement:
To qualify for benefits, you earn credits through your work - up to four each year ... Most people need 40 credits, earned over their working lifetime, to receive retirement benefits.

But, to get those 4 credits last year, you only had to earn (checks notes again) $5,280 in taxable income. A decade ago, iirc, that number was closer to $4,500 .... so, if this person worked 10 years earning a salary, they're probably eligible for something based on that alone. (Exception: if they did work they wouldn't be paying SS tax on, like government jobs - which, since you didn't mention it, I'm assuming isn't the case?)
posted by Tess of the d'Urkelvilles at 7:57 PM on September 16, 2019

The base rate because it hasn't been mentioned yet is 750 a month. If he gets less than that in SSDI, he will recieve a combo of SSI and SSDI for a total of 770. It does vary slightly by state (some states currently offer 770 a month as base) but the minimum is going to be around 750.
posted by AlexiaSky at 3:44 AM on September 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

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