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AUSTIN EDITION -- col Benefits planner can be a helpful tool

Social Security benefits can provide much needed financial support for you or your family when you retire, if you become disabled or when you die. The Social Security Benefits Planner found at www.ssa.gov/planners is designed to help you better understand your Social Security benefits as you plan for your financial future.

The planner contains sections dealing with retirement, disability and survivors benefits, making it a useful tool for people of all ages. A benefit calculator permits you to use different assumptions about your future work to see how they may affect your benefit amounts.

The retirement section will help you learn how you qualify for Social Security retirement benefits, which members of your family may get benefits and when you should apply. You can also link to outside Web sites that discuss other sources of retirement income and post-retirement concerns such as housing, medical care and leisure activities.

What if you are disabled before you reach retirement age? The planner explains how you and your family may qualify for benefits if you become severely disabled before you qualify for retirement benefits. Even very young workers already may have earned disability protection.

What help is available for survivors? This section helps you learn about survivors benefits from two sides: first, how your family members are protected when you die and second, how you may qualify as a survivor on someone else's Social Security record. This protection is particularly important for young families with children.

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In addition, the calculator is linked to a worksheet developed by the American Savings Education Council that helps you figure out how much additional retirement income you will need to support your current lifestyle.

Each year, we send you a personal Social Security Statement, which gives you an estimate of the monthly benefit amounts you and your family may qualify for now and in the future. Using the Statement and the online Benefits Planner, you can explore the options available to you to build financial security for yourself and your family using your Social Security benefits as a base.

Gerald Nelson is the Social Security district manager in Austin.

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