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.
How to Earn Credits
You earn one Social Security work credit by earning $1,360 and paying Social Security taxes on that money. You can earn a maximum four Social Security 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 2018, employees paid 6.2 percent of their gross income towards Social Security, and employers are required to match that. If you're self-employed, you pay the full 12.4 percent through self-employment taxes.
Social Security Quarters
You may also see your minimum Social Security points expressed as Social Security quarters. "Quarter" is the legal term for the more informal "points" normally used. The law describes the minimum 2019 amount needed as equal to the $250 earned per quarter of coverage in 1978, when the requirements were first defined, multiplied by the ratio of the average national wage index for 2017 to the wage index in 1976, which is why in 2019, you'll earn one point for every $1,360. This comes from the 1976 national wage index of 9,226.48 and the 2017 national wage index of 50,321.89. The total is rounded to the nearest dollar to make calculating the amount necessary per point easier.
Determining Retirement Eligibility
In order to qualify for benefits at retirement, you need a minimum of 40 Social Security 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 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.
Determining 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. Generally speaking, you'll need to have 40 work credits to qualify, and 20 of those credits must have been earned in the past 10 years, with the final year being the year you became disabled. However, age can adjust those requirements downward. If you're under the age of 24, for instance, you wouldn't have worked long enough to meet those minimum qualifications. In that case, you may qualify if you have at least six credits earned in the three years before your disability begins. Those ages 24 to 31 may qualify if they have credit for working at least half the time before becoming disabled. For those aged 31 or older, credit requirements start at 20 but adjust upward based on age. Social Security considers four credits representative of a full year of work.
How Survivor's Benefits Work
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. Nobody needs more than 40 credits, which is 10 years of work. 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.
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.