To get Social Security retirement benefits, first you have to earn them by working and paying Social Security taxes. Then you have to reach the age when you can begin to draw benefits -- 62 years old. Social Security also pays benefits to non-working spouses, disabled workers and survivors of deceased workers.
Workers earn their Social Security benefits by accumulating "credits" during their working years. You can earn up to four credits a year, meaning you must work at least 10 years to qualify for benefits. You get one credit every time you earn, and pay Social Security tax on, a certain amount of money in a three-month period. As of 2011, that amount was $1,120. The credit amount rises with inflation; in 1978, when the current credit system was instituted, it was $250. Once you qualify for benefits, the size of those benefits is based on the amount of money you earned.
If you've earned enough credits to qualify for Social Security, you can begin receiving benefits at age 62. However, that's not your "retirement age," as the government defines it. Depending on when you were born, your official retirement age ranges from 65 to 67. If you wait until your retirement age to start getting benefits, then you'll receive your full monthly benefit based on your wages in your working years. But if you start taking benefits before then, you'll get less every month, because your benefits will be paid out over a longer period. The amount of the reduction is greatest if you start getting benefits at age 62; the longer you wait, the smaller the reduction.
Non-working spouses are entitled to Social Security benefits. A spouse's benefit is generally half that of the working spouse. If the couple is divorced, the spouse is still eligible as long as they were married for 10 years. Also, spouses who worked and earned their own Social Security benefit might get more money if they claimed a spouse benefit. Social Security allows them to take whichever benefit provides the most money. The eligible ages for spouse benefits are the same as for standard retirement benefits: Spouses can start receiving benefits at 62, but the amount is reduced unless they wait until their official retirement age.
If you become disabled, you can begin receiving Social Security disability benefits at any age. If you die, your spouse and dependent children become eligible for survivors' benefits immediately. Disability and survivor benefits, like retirement benefits, are based on the amount of money you made while you were working. These benefits have to be earned, too, but the number of credits you need depends on your age. The younger you are, the fewer credits necessary.