Social Security Reform: Legal Analysis of Social Security Benefit Entitlement Issues

Source: Kathleen S. Swendiman, Thomas J. Nicola, Congressional Research Service, CRS Report for Congress, RL32822, June 7, 2013

Calculations indicating that in the long run the Social Security program will not be financially sustainable under the present statutory scheme have fueled the current debate regarding Social Security reform. This report addresses selected legal issues which may be raised regarding entitlement to Social Security benefits as Congress considers possible changes to the Social Security program, and in view of projected long-range shortfalls in the Social Security Trust Funds…

The calculations concerning the possible future insolvency of the Social Security Trust Funds raise a question whether that result would affect the legal right of beneficiaries to receive full Social Security benefits. While an entitlement by definition legally obligates the United States to make payments to any person who meets the eligibility requirements established in the statute that creates the entitlement, a provision of the Antideficiency Act prevents an agency from paying more in benefits than the amount in the source of funds available to pay the benefits. The Social Security Act states that Social Security benefits shall be paid only from the Social Security Trust Funds, and the act appropriates all payroll taxes to pay benefits. Although the legal right of beneficiaries to receive full benefits would not be extinguished by an insufficient amount of funds in the Social Security Trust Funds, it appears that beneficiaries would have to wait until the Trust Funds receive an amount sufficient to pay full benefits in the case of a shortfall, unless Congress amends applicable laws…