Social Security and How It Works

What’s Social Security?

Social Security is a federal government program that provides a source of income for you or your legal dependents (spouse, children, or parents) if you qualify for benefits. You also need a Social Security number to get a job.

Find how to apply to get a Social Security number or to replace your Social Security card.

How Do Benefits Work and How Can I Qualify?

While you work, you pay Social Security taxes. This tax money goes into a trust fund that pays benefits to those who are currently retired, to people with disabilities, and to the surviving spouses and children of workers who have died. Each year you work, you’ll get credits to help you become eligible for benefits when it’s time for you to retire. Find all the benefits Social Security Administration (SSA) offers.

There are four main types of benefits that the SSA offers:

  • Retirement benefits
  • Disability benefits
  • Benefits for spouses or other survivors of a family member who’s passed
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

How to Open a “my Social Security” Account

If you receive or will receive Social Security benefits, you may want to open a “my Social Security” account. This online account is a service from the SSA that allows you to keep track of and manage your SSA benefits, and allows you to make changes to your Social Security record.

How to Find More Help

If you have specific questions about your Social Security benefits, you can review the Social Security Administration’s frequently asked questions or contact Social Security Administration directly.

Protecting Your Private Pension Benefits

Read up on how to correct calculation errors. Find out if your pension is covered if the company defaults. See if there’s an unclaimed pension owed to you or someone you know.

Avoid Errors in Pension Calculation and Get Help Fixing Them

If your job is covered by a traditional pension plan, make sure you get the pension amount you’re owed. 

  • Find ways to protect yourself. Read these 10 common causes of errors in pension calculation.
  • Get free legal help if you’re experiencing a problem with your pension plan.
  • Find out whether your pension or annuity income is taxable.
  • For questions or complaints about your plan, contact your human resources office. Or contact the Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) regional office near you.

Federal Insurance for Private Pensions

If your company runs into financial problems, you’re likely to still get your pension.

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC):

  • Insures most private-sector defined-benefit pensions. These are plans that typically pay a certain amount each month after you retire.
  • Covers most cash-balance plans. Those are defined-benefit pensions that allow you to take a lump-sum distribution.
  • Does not cover government and military pensions, 401k plans, IRAs, and certain others.

Is Your Pension Insured?

  • Search PBGC’s database of insured plans.
  • If your plan is insured and it ends without enough money to pay all benefits, PBGC steps in. PBGC will pay you the money you’re owed, up to legal limits.
  • To learn more about PBGC-insured pensions, view these frequently asked questions.

Find an Unclaimed Pension

More than 38 million people in the U.S. haven’t claimed pension benefits they have earned. Find out if you, or someone you know, is owed a pension.

Civil Service Retirement

If you’ve retired from the federal government or plan to, get to know the Office of Personnel Management (OPM)’s retirement services.

Federal Employee Retirement Planning and Management

OPM has information to help you:

  • Learn about retirement options
  • Manage your benefits online
  • Sign up for or change your direct deposit
  • Find answers to common questions about federal retirement

Survivors of Federal Employees and Retirees

If you’re the survivor of a federal employee or retiree, you may qualify for death and survivor benefits. Visit the OPM website to report the death and apply for death benefits.

Thrift Savings Plan for Current Employees

As a current federal employee, you can contribute to the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). The TSP offers the same types of savings and tax benefits as a 401(k) plan.

Retirement Credit for Military Service

Military service does not automatically count toward civil service retirement.

  • To receive credit for military service performed after 1956, you must pay a deposit.
  • Military retirees generally don’t get military service credit toward civilian retirement. You would have to waive your military pension to get it.

Federal Taxes on Government Pensions

Your pension or annuity payment may be taxable. Find out with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) online tool and online publication.

Retirement Benefits Help from OPM

For benefits information or help with a transaction, contact OPM’s Retirement Operations Center.

State and Local Government Employees

If you work for state or local government, contact your agency for pension questions. Its personnel department should be able to help. You can also contact the Employee Benefits Security Administration.

Saving for Retirement

As you approach retirement, there are many things to think about. Experts advise that you will need about 80 percent of your pre-retirement income to continue your current quality of life. The exact amount depends on your individual needs. Some important factors to consider include:

  • At what age do you plan to retire?
  • Can you participate in an employer’s retirement savings plan, such as a 401(k) plan, or a traditional pension plan? 
  • Will your spouse or partner retire when you do?
  • Where do you plan to live when you retire? Will you downsize, rent, or own your home?
  • Do you expect to work part-time?
  • Will you have the same medical insurance you had while working? Will your coverage change?
  • Do you want to travel or pursue a new hobby that might be costly?

Tools to Help You Prepare for Retirement

To help you plan for retirement:

  • Find practical tips for building retirement savings in the Top 10 Ways to Prepare for Retirement (PDF, Download Adobe Reader).  
  • Use a retirement calculator to find out the best age to claim your Social Security benefits. 
  • Find out the trade-offs between taking your pension in a monthly payment or in a lump sum (PDF, Download Adobe Reader).
  • Social Security pays benefits that are on average equal to about 40 percent of your pre-retirement earnings. You may be able to estimate your benefits.
  • Learn how you can boost your retirement savings at
  • If you have a financial advisor, talk to him or her about your plans.

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