Social Security
Learning about ... Social Security
     led by Peter W. Martin


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Scope and Importance

This course, to be offered during spring term 2008, provides an introduction to Social Security Law. It focuses especially on how Social Security's benefit rules relate to employment, family relationships, household composition; how its procedures address the challenge of adjudicating the massive number of benefit claims that arise each year; and where lawyers fit in that process.

The programs commonly called Social Security touch the lives of well over 90 percent of all persons living or working in the United States and provide critical income to those who have retired or ceased working due to severe physical or mental disability. They also provide income to other members of a worker's family when the worker has retired, become disabled, or died. Both individually and collectively the amounts are very large. For a majority of those receiving Social Security, the benefits represent at least half their annual income. Total payments amount to more than $450 billion a year.

The law directing these payments and setting their amount is complex. Questions about proper application of this law are raised in many thousands of administrative hearings and federal court proceedings each year. Learning about that law is important, however, not only to those who must resolve questions of Social Security law as judges or who represent individuals and families claiming benefits, but to all individuals, family members, and organizations seeking a clearer understanding of how this program affects their lives and plans. Since these benefits are so important to individuals at critical points in their lives, lawyers who counsel them need to know under what circumstances Social Security benefits are available and their approximate value. Decisions about when to retire, how much to save and in what form, and even whether or when to marry or divorce should, in many cases, involve consideration of Social Security.

Although the Social Security Act of 1935 established a wide range of income support programs and many additional programs have since been added to the Social Security Act, the phrase "Social Security" is used throughout the course to refer more narrowly to the programs found in Title II of that act. These include old-age insurance (retirement) benefits, survivors' benefits, and disability benefits. The full collection is referred to as Old-Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance or OASDI.

The course also gives summary treatment to questions of entitlement and benefit amount under Title XVI, the Supplement Security Income program (SSI). As its name suggests, Supplemental Security Income can be viewed as a backstop for Social Security, providing benefits for individuals in the same population segments who have insufficient income, either because they do not qualify for Social Security (having not had enough past covered employment) or because their Social Security benefits are too low.

Nature of the Materials and the Course

The entire course is taught on-line. It consists of five interconnected components: (1) a series of background presentations on a sequence of topics that, together, introduce the field, (2) a companion set of assigned readings, (3) a fully integrated set of problems, questions and mastery exercises designed to assist each participant to develop and test his or her mastery of the material, topic by topic, (4) a Web-based conference or discussion board that functions as an on-line analog of classroom discussion, and (5) Social Security Law reference materials. It concludes with a final exam administered by each of the participating institutions for its own students.

Is this course for you?

Since the instruction and discussion in this course take place on-line, with no regularly scheduled class meetings, students taking it must be able to work independently. They need to be able to find the necessary time for its weekly presentations, assignments, and problems in their schedules without having those times assigned. The course requires the same commitment of time, study, and effort as a conventionally taught three-credit law school course. While there will not be the normal complement of weekly meetings the course has numerous deadlines. You get to decide exactly when and where you do the work but you will be expected to get it done on time. If you need constant reminders about deadlines this form of course instruction may present a challenge.

"Working independently" need not mean working alone. With the exception of the required mastery exercises and the final exam, students are permitted (even encouraged) to listen to the presentations and address the problems in groups of two or more. Many of you at each participating school may find it useful to set up a regular time and place for review and discussion.

An on-line course demands a fairly high familiarity and comfort level with the Web environment. If you can download and run applications, browse the Web, install software, manage files, and regularly communicate via e-mail, this should not be a problem. If, on the other hand, you are hesitant and unsure about using the Web unless you have a course partner who can provide "technical assistance" this course may not be for you. For more details on this aspect of the course see the "get acquainted" material below.

If you feel the need for more details about both the content of the course or its methods, you can proceed directly, without registering, to the course's introductory unit, accessible from the Syllabus and Schedule page.

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