Social Security Eligibility Facts

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Qualifying for Social Security means cash in your pocket when you retire.
Qualifying for Social Security means cash in your pocket when you retire. (Image: David Sacks/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Americans don't automatically qualify for Social Security benefits. You must work and pay Social Security taxes for a minimum amount of time and meet age requirements. If you are married, you can qualify if your spouse is eligible, even if you don’t meet the work requirement on your own.

Work Credits Required

The Social Security Administration bases eligibility for retirement benefits on work credits. You must have 40 work credits to qualify. At one time, credits were awarded for earning a minimum amount per calendar quarter. Now credits are determined annually. When you earn a specific amount, you receive one work credit and you can get up to four per year. The earnings threshold is adjusted each year for inflation. In 2015, you received one credit for the first $1,220 you made from a job or self-employment, provided you paid Social Security tax on the money. If you made four times that, or $4,880, you got four credits. Additional earnings don’t add more work credits – four is the yearly maximum.

Age for Full Benefits

Individuals must wait to collect Social Security until full retirement age to qualify for 100 percent of the normal monthly benefit. This benefit amount is determined by the SSA based on a person’s work history Full retirement age is defined by the SSA as 66 when you were born before 1955 and 67 if your date of birth was after 1959. To find the exact age for a birth date in the intervening years, add two months for each year after 1954. For example, add six months to 66 years if born in 1957.

Early Retirement Rules

The youngest age you can collect benefits is normally 62. When you begin Social Security payments early, the monthly amount is less than the normal benefit. This is a permanent reduction. The idea is that you’ll get about the same amount over your lifetime, but it’s spread out over a longer period. The reduction is a small percentage for each month you retire early. For example, if your full benefit is $900 and you start benefits a month early, you lose $5 per month. However, this adds up. If you begin Social Security at age 62 and your full retirement age is 66, you receive 75 percent of the normal amount. When full retirement age is 67, the reduced benefit is 70 percent of the full amount.

Eligibility through Spouses

When a married person doesn’t have enough work credits to qualify for Social Security retirement, she is eligible if her spouse qualifies. No work credits are required for spousal payments, but the age requirements are the same. You can get up to half of what your spouse receives. Spousal benefits can begin at age 62, but the amount is reduced. Divorced individuals can still get spousal benefits if the marriage lasted at least 10 years. Spouses can also get survivor’s benefits. Survivor’s benefits may begin at age 60.

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