Roughly 25 percent of retired married couples and half of single retirees rely on Social Security for 90 percent of their income. In 2012, more than 56 million Americans received Social Security benefits. If you or your spouse don't work enough to acquire the minimum number of credits, you may not qualify for benefits of your own.
You earn Social Security benefits by building up Social Security credits during your working years. You can earn up to four credits a year: In 2012, each $1,130 you earn is worth one credit. The rules are different for domestic workers and farmhands, and also for state and local governments that don't participate in Social Security. Earning income that isn't taxed for Social Security, such as dividends and interest, doesn't earn credits. You don't have to space credits out: If you earn enough money for four credits in just a couple of months' work, that's fine.
If you were born after 1928, you need 40 credits -- a minimum 10 years of work paying Social Security taxes -- to qualify for retirement benefits. If you become disabled and have to stop work, the credits needed for disability benefits vary with age. Under age 24, you need only 6; close to retirement age, you need a full 40 credits. If you don't earn enough credits, you can't get benefits. Most workers, however, put in more than 10 years qualifying work by the time they retire.
Family members are an exception to the no-credits rule. If your spouse worked and earned credits but you didn't, you're still entitled to a benefit equal to up to one-half your spouse's Social Security income. Ex-wives who haven't remarried can claim the same. If your spouse worked long enough to earn a full 40 credits before his death, you can claim survivor benefits based on his Social Security earnings. Ex-wives may be able to claim survivor status too.
The simplest solution to a lack of credits is to start saving for retirement early enough in life so that you don't need Social Security to live. If it's too late for that and you're short of 40 credits when you reach retirement, you have no choice but to continue working until you accumulate the magic 40. Review your W-2 forms every year to confirm that your name, Social Security number and pay are recorded accurately. That way you know you're getting the credits to which you're entitled.
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