Social Security: What is it, and What are My Rights?

Doug Mann

Social Security is the foundation of economic security for millions of Americans. The underlying concept is simple. When you work, you pay taxes into Social Security. That money then flows back out as monthly income to beneficiaries. Social security benefits include retirement payments, several forms of disability payments, and survivor benefits. 

Have a question for a lawyer?
Get a Free Case Evaulation
Table of Contents
  1. The Concept of Social Security
  2. Retirement
  3. When to Contact A Lawyer

At the current time, Social Security reaches almost every family, and at some point, touches the lives of nearly every American. As of June 2020, about 180 million people worked and paid Social Security taxes, and about 65 million people received monthly Social Security benefits. 

The Concept of Social Security

In the midst of the Great Depression, public support galvanized behind a major social welfare program that would ultimately become a hallmark of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The result was The Social Security Act of 1935.

Although much of Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation was overturned on the basis that it was beyond the powers granted to the United States by the U.S. Constitution, two major Supreme Court cases in the 1930s affirmed the constitutionality of the Act. Stewart Machine Co. v. Davis, 301 U.S. 548 (1937); Helvering v. Davis, 301 U.S. 619 (1937).


For many people, Social Security is the primary source of their retirement income. You qualify by compiling credits when you pay Social Security tax on your earnings. You can earn up to four credits per year. Workers qualify for Social Security retirement benefits when they reach 40 lifetime credits.

The amount of your average wages that Social Security retirement benefits replace varies depending on your earnings and when you choose to start benefits. If you start benefits in 2021 at your “full retirement age,” this percentage ranges from as much as 78 percent for very low earners, to about 42 percent for medium earners, to about 28 percent for high earners. If you start benefits after full retirement age, these percentages would be higher. If you start benefits earlier, these percentages would be lower. 

You can estimate your Social Security retirement benefits on the Social Security Administration’s tool by inputting your Social Security number and other information.


Though Social Security is often thought of as simply a retirement program, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs provide assistance to people with disabilities.

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)

If you are disabled and paid enough money into the Social Security system, you will be entitled to a monthly benefit. Under the Act, “disability” is defined as the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death, or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.

For 2021, the maximum SSDI benefit is $3,148, but the actual amount is unique for every individual. This is due to the fact that the Social Security Administration uses a complex weighted formula in order to calculate benefits for each person, depending on their “covered earnings.

Supplemental Security Income Benefits (SSI)

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) helps people who are unable to earn sufficient wages on their own by providing a monthly payment for food, clothing, and shelter. SSI is not funded by Social Security taxes, but rather by general tax revenues.

To be eligible for SSI, you need not have paid money into the Social Security tax system. It is available to people who: 

  • Are at least age 65 or blind or disabled
  • Have limited income (wages, pensions, etc.)
  • Have limited resources (the things you own)
  • With limited exceptions, reside in one of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, or the Northern Mariana Islands.

Effective January 1, 2021, the maximum Federal benefit rate is $794 for an individual and $1,191 for a couple.

Not everyone gets the same amount. Some states supplement the Federal SSI benefit with additional payments. Benefit amounts vary based upon your income, living arrangements, and other factors. 

Survivors’ Benefits

Social Security provides survivor benefits to help bridge financial gaps for survivors of workers and retirees.  Eligible recipients typically include widows and widowers, divorced spouses and children. The level of benefits depends on a number of factors, including the worker’s age at death, the worker’s salary, the survivors’ ages, and the survivors’ relation to the deceased.

There also is a “death benefit” for survivors that is a one-time payment of $255 that goes to the spouse or children of a deceased worker.

A landmark 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision struck down state bans on same-sex marriage.  Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015). Thus, individuals in a same-sex marriage are now eligible for spousal Social Security benefits if they have met other statutory requirements.

When to Contact A Lawyer

While Social Security retirement and survivor benefit issues are generally straightforward, more than half of all Social Security disability claims, whether for SSDI or SSI, are denied. The process of applying for disability benefits can be complicated. Your claim may be denied if you fail to provide proper paperwork or don’t adequately substantiate that you are disabled.  Similarly, missing a deadline may result in a denial of your claim. 

An expert tip from Doug Mann

There is a very long wait to receive disability benefits, with the average claimant waiting between four and six months to hear whether the initial claim for benefits is approved. If a claim is initially denied, as many are, the process will take much longer. 

We’re experts in helping our clients maneuver forward when they run into hurdles with their Social Security benefits. Our attorneys can make sure your claim is properly documented and filed in a timely manner. And if your claim is denied, we can help you file a request for reconsideration, or an appeal before an Administrative Law Judge or in the Federal court system. 

Let us help you take the anxiety and stress out of the process of applying for the Social Security benefits that you’re entitled to. Contact us today to set up a free consultation.

Get a Free Case Evaluation

Have a legal question? Email our team. We respond to all messages within 24 hours.