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Millions of people who receive Social Security benefits are retired workers who depend on the program for a substantial portion of their total income. But many other Social Security takers are actually not yet retired, choosing to work while they receive monthly payments from Social Security, drawing their total income from regular wages and their benefits.

Special rules apply to people working while collecting Social Security, and learning the hang-ups can help you continue your career into your later years while maximizing your Social Security benefits. If you’re not careful, you can end up losing some of your benefits. This guide offers an overview of how people continue working while receiving Social Security and how to avoid costly pitfalls.

How can I receive Social Security while I’m working?

Many people think Social Security’s main purpose is to provide benefits to replace regular wage income for folks who have stopped working in their old age. This is true for a large number of people who receive retirement benefits from Social Security after reaching the end of their careers and who don’t expect to have further earnings from employment in the future.

However, there are a number of situations in which you can become eligible to receive Social Security benefits long before you reach a typical age for retirement. They include:

  • Early retirement benefits. You can start getting your benefits as early as age 62. Though the full retirement age (FRA) at which you can claim the full amount of monthly payments that results from calculations using the Social Security benefit formula is currently somewhere between 66 and 67 for anyone born in 1943 or later, you’re entitled to claim early retirement benefits before reaching your FRA. Moreover, there’s no requirement that you actually be retired to get those benefits — they’re called retirement benefits in part to distinguish them from family benefits, which are based on someone else’s work record, like with spousal and survivors’ benefits.
  • Spousal benefits. If your living spouse has claimed retirement benefits, then you can also be eligible to claim spousal benefits. The most typical situation requires you to be 62 or older before claiming Social Security based on a spouse’s work record. However, if you’re caring for a child who’s under age 16 or is disabled, then you can claim at any age.
  • Survivors benefits. If your spouse has passed away, then you typically become eligible for survivor benefits once you reach age 60 — even if you yourself have never worked or earned Social Security retirement benefits of your own.  Again, though, surviving spouses can receive benefits at any age if they’re caring for a child under age 16 or who is disabled. Also, if you yourself are disabled, then you can receive benefits as a surviving spouse even earlier, at age 50.
  • Disability benefits. Social Security pays benefits to disabled workers and certain family members, including a spouse, children, or a dependent grandchild or parent at any age as long as the worker meets the qualification requirements. In general, to get disability benefits, your condition must prevent you from doing both your former work and other types of work, and it must be long-term in nature, lasting at least 12 months. Because disability benefit payments are based on the idea that the worker is unable to have gainful employment, however, the situation involving disability benefits is fundamentally different from the retirement benefits.

In any of these situations, you might be entitled to Social Security while you’re an age at which you’d like to keep working. But that leads to another question: If you can get valuable Social Security benefits that would replace a significant part of the income you earn from working, why even stay at your current job?

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