The Social Security administration provides cash benefits for individuals who have worked and paid into the Social Security system. The eligibility rules vary depending on whether you're applying for disability benefits, retirement benefits or survivor benefits.
Eligibility for Disability Benefits
To be eligible for Social Security benefits due to a disability, you must meet the earnings test and have what the federal government considers a disability.
Two tests are used to determine whether you are eligible to receive disability benefits: an earnings test and a disability test.
You must have worked recently. If you become disabled before you turn 24 years old, you must have worked 1.5 years of the three-year period before you became disabled. If you become disabled between ages 24 and 31, you must have worked half the period between when you turned 21 and when your disability began. For example, if you become disabled at 31, you must have worked for half of 10 years -- or five years -- to be eligible. If you become disabled after age 31, you must have worked five years out of the 10-year period before you become disabled.
You must have worked long enough to qualify for benefits. Depending on your age when you become disabled, you must have worked from one to 10 years to qualify. The table on Page 5 of the Social Security Administration's Guide to Disability Benefits breaks down the requirements at different ages.
Before approving your application, the Social Security administration must determine if you meet its definition of disabled. When making the decision, the administration considers:
- If you're working. If you are, you're generally not considered to be disabled.
- If your condition is severe. If it doesn't significantly limit your ability to work, you're not disabled.
- If your condition exists on its list of impairments. If it doesn't, the administration continues to investigate your condition.
- If you can do the work you did before. If you can, you're not disabled.
- If you can do any other type of work. If you can do other work that fits your age, education, skills and experience, you're not disabled.
Eligibility for Retirement Benefits
To collect Social Security retirement benefits, you must have worked enough during your lifetime to earn 40 credits and paid Social Security taxes on your earnings. You can earn up to four credits a year based on your income. That means you must work and pay into Social Security for a minimum of 10 years to qualify. However, it could take longer to qualify if your earnings are too low to earn four credits a year or you stop working for a while.
If your spouse meets the work requirements for Social Security but you don't, you're not out of luck. Spouses with low earnings may get up to half a retired worker's benefit amount. Divorced spouses also may qualify for benefits. A divorced spouse can receive a benefit equal to one-half the retired worker's amount as long as the marriage lasted 10 years or longer, the divorced spouse is unmarried and the benefit is larger than what she would receive based on her own work record.
If you stop working and return to work later, the work credits you've earned still count toward your total.
Your earnings only count toward Social Security retirement benefits if you pay Social Security taxes on them. Many federal, state and local government employees pay into a retirement system that's separate from Social Security. That means, unless they paid enough Social Security taxes at a different job, they typically don't qualify for Social Security benefits.
Noncitizens are eligible for Social Security benefits as long as they are in the country legally and meet all other qualifications.
You can start collecting retirement benefits when you're age 62. However, the benefit you receive is reduced. To receive your full Social Security benefit, you must wait to retire until you reach your full retirement age to start collecting. The full retirement age is between age 66 and 67 depending on when you were born.
Eligibility for Survivor Benefits
If a wage earner dies, his spouse and children may be eligible to receive survivor benefit payments. As with other types of Social Security benefits, there are minimum work requirements to qualify. Also, only certain individuals count as survivors.
Compared to retirement benefits, the wage earner doesn't have to work as long to qualify for benefits for his survivors. According to Social Security's Survivor Benefits Guide, the number of years you have to work depends on the age of death but is never more than 10 years. The younger the wage earner is when he dies, the lower the requirement.
Social Security allows the spouse and children of a deceased wage earned to receive benefits if the wage earner worked for 1.5 years of the three-year period before he died. This rule applies to all qualified wage earners, regardless of the age at death.
The wage earner's unmarried children under age 18 are eligible for survivor benefits. They can also qualify if they're 19 and still in school or if they were disabled before age 22. Both biological and legally adopted children qualify for benefits. Stepchildren qualify under certain conditions as do grandchildren.
The wage earner's widow or widower can receive survivor benefits immediately after your death if she's caring for your child. Otherwise, she has to wait until full retirement age to collect or receive reduced benefits at age 60.