How Many Credits Does It Take to Qualify for Social Security?

You earn work credits by earning wages and paying in to Social Security.

You earn work credits by earning wages and paying in to Social Security.

If you're working and paying in to Social Security through payroll taxes, then you're earning credits toward retirement benefits. Eligibility for the program is based on the number of credits you have, while the benefit amount is based on how much you earn over your working life. Keep the Social Security credits in mind while you're planning for retirement.

Earning Credits

You earn a Social Security work credit by earning $1,130 and paying Social Security taxes on that money. You can earn a maximum four credits a year. On your paycheck, Social Security taxes appear in the little box marked "FICA," which stands for Federal Insurance Contributions Act. As of 2012, employees paid 4.2 percent of their gross income towards Social Security, while their employers paid 6.2 percent. If you're self-employed, you pay the full 10.4 percent through self-employment taxes.

Retirement Eligibility

In order to qualify for Social Security retirement, you need a minimum of 40 credits. You can earn these credits at any time; old credits don't expire, although Social Security regularly raises the amount of money you need to make to earn a credit. Since you can only earn four credits a year, for most people this means you must work in at least 10 calendar years to be eligible for retirement. If you reach retirement age and still don't have sufficient credits, you can continue to accumulate them by working and earning.

Disability Eligibility

Social Security sets the work-credit rule a bit differently for disability applicants. The number of credits you need depends on your age. If you are 31 through 42 years old, for example, you need 20 credits. The number of credits needed gradually rises until it hits 40 credits at age 62. If you are younger than 24, you need six credits earned in the three years before you became disabled. If you are at least 24 but not 31, you must have credits for working half the time between age 21 and the year you became disabled. Social Security considers earning four credits to represent a full year of work.

Survivor's Benefits

As the spouse or child of a covered worker, you can draw survivor's benefits if that worker dies. In order to be eligible for these benefits, the deceased worker must accumulate a minimum number of credits, which rises gradually as the worker gets older. Under a special rule, survivors may also draw benefits if the deceased worker has earned at least six credits in the three years before his death.

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Founder/president of the innovative reference publisher The Archive LLC, Tom Streissguth has been a self-employed business owner, independent bookseller and freelance author in the school/library market. Holding a bachelor's degree from Yale, Streissguth has published more than 100 works of history, biography, current affairs and geography for young readers.

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