Social Security

Am I Eligible for Social Security Benefits?

Yes, you're probably eligible for Social Security benefits. 93% of workers today will be eligible to receive benefits when they retire. You just need to work and pay your social security taxes for 10 or more years. If you don’t work, you could also be eligible for social security if you are married to someone who is working. In either case, you can start collecting benefits after you turn 62 (although it pays to wait longer). If you are disabled or a widow, you can often start collecting benefits earlier. In some cases, children of workers can collect benefits too.

Here are some rules that the Social Security Administration uses to determine eligibility.

Rules for Workers

About 93% of workers in the private sector will be eligible to receive social security benefits. When you work and pay taxes into the Social Security system, the Social Security Administration issues you a "credit." In 2015, you’ll earn one credit for each $1,220 in earnings—up to a maximum of four credits a year. Each year, the amount of money needed to earn one credit increases a little. Most people will need 40 credits (10 years of work where they earned more than $4,880) to qualify for benefits.

Most government workers will also be eligible to receive social security in the same way. However, about 20% of government workers do not pay social security taxes. As a result, they are not eligible to receive social security benefits. Instead, they pay into and will receive benefits from their own pension program. When Social Security was created, a few government employees (notably, railroad workers) already had their own pension system. The law let them maintain their own system and exempted them from Social Security. It was also thought that forcing state and local workers to adopt social security would be unconstitutional. So, those governments were given the option of joining or establishing their own pensions. To find out if you are paying social security taxes, look at your paycheck stub. If you see deductions for "FICA" or “Social Security” in the taxes section, it means you are paying Social Security taxes.

Disability

Social Security originally provided only retirement benefits. It was expanded in 1954 to start providing disability benefits too. Today, if you become disabled before retirement, you can be eligible to receive social security at an earlier age. Like retirement benefits, you must earn enough social security work "credits" to qualify for disability benefits. The number you must earn depends on the you became disabled. See the table below.

The Social Security Administration uses a stricter definition of disability than other programs. "Disability" is based on your inability to work. You are considered "disabled" if all of the following apply:

  • You cannot do work that you did before

  • The Social Security Administration decides that you cannot adjust to other work because of your condition

  • Your disability has lasted or is expected to last for at least one year or to result in death

If you are or were married to a qualified worker

When Social Security was created in 1935, it only covered workers. It was amended in 1939 to shift the emphasis of the program toward family coverage. Benefits were added for spouses and widows. In 1950, coverage was expanded to include divorced spouses as well.

Before you can qualify for social security benefits through your marriage, your current or former spouse must qualify for retirement benefits as a worker or for disability benefits (as described above). Additionally, the following must apply:

If you are currently married

  • You are over the age of 62 -or- you are under 62 and caring for a child who is either disabled or under 16

  • You have been married for at least one month

  • Your spouse must have filed to receive their social security benefits (which means your spouse must be at least over the age of 62 or receiving disability)

If you are divorced

  • You are over the age of 62 -or- you are under 62 and caring for the child you had with your ex-spouse who is either disabled or under 16

  • Your ex-spouse has filed for retirement or disability benefits -or- your ex-spouse is over the age of 62 and you have been divorced for 2 or more years (if your ex-spouse has passed away, then you would qualify for benefits as a widow(er) - see below)

  • Your marriage lasted for at least 10 years

  • You are unmarried or you are remarried only after the age of 60 (it does not matter if your ex-spouse has remarried)

If you are widowed

  • You are over the age of 60

  • You were married for at least 9 months (unless you were divorced first, in which case you would need to have been married for 10 years)

  • You are unmarried or remarried only after the age of 60 (it does not matter if your ex-spouse has remarried)

Note that if your spouse passed away at a young age, the number of "credits" they need to have earned will be less than 40. See the table below.

Benefits for your children

When you qualify for Social Security retirement or disability benefits, your children (or even grandchildren) may also be eligible to receive payments. For a child to be considered eligible for a benefit he or she must be your biological child or your dependent. So, adopted children, stepchildren and dependent grandchildren could also qualify.

To receive benefits, the child must be unmarried and:m

  • Under the age of 18, or

  • 18-19 years old and a full-time student (no higher than 12th grade), or

  • Any age and disabled from before the age of 22

When your child reaches any of the age limits above, benefits will stop. Benefits paid for your child will not decrease your retirement benefit.

Complex Eligibility Situations

Eligibility rules get more complicated when you combine qualifications. For example, the child of a deceased worker can receive survivor benefits even if the worker only earned 6 credits. A disabled widow(er) can start receiving benefits at 50. If you think a more complex situation applies to you, visit the Social Security Administration's website to learn more.

Credits needed to qualify for Disability and Survivor Benefits by Age

Disability or death at age: "Credits" needed When the credits need to be earned
Before 24 6 The 3 years before your disability/death
24 6-7*
25 8-9*
26 10-11*
27 12-13*
28 14-15*
29 16-17*
30 18-19*
31 through 42 20 20 of the credits need to have been earned in the 10 years before your disability/death
44 22
46 24
48 26
50 28
52 30
54 32
56 34
58 36
60 38
62 or older 40

* You may qualify if you have credit for working half the time between age 21 and the time you become disabled. For example, if you become disabled at age 27, you would need credit for 3 years of work (12 credits) out of the past 6 years (between ages 21 and 27).

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