Social Security Benefits

Find out Who's Eligible for Social Security
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Social Security benefits eligibility

Older adults who were in the work force (even part time for very low wages) for as little as ten years total are likely eligible for Social Security retirement benefits. And if either spouse in a married couple worked for wages, or was self-employed and paid taxes, then both of them are likely eligible for some type of Social Security benefits.

There are a number of ways that older adults can be eligible for Social Security benefits:

  • A person who worked for at least ten years is eligible for retirement benefits.
  • If that person is married, the spouse is eligible for dependents benefits as early as age 62.
  • If someone worked but became disabled before reaching full retirement age, that person could be eligible for disability benefits. If so, that person's spouse is eligible for dependents benefits as early as age 62.
  • If both spouses worked for at least ten years, each is eligible for both retirement and dependents benefits.
  • If either person in a married couple is eligible for retirement or disability benefits but then dies, the surviving spouse would be eligible for survivors benefits, as early as age 60.
  • A person  who's eligible for more than one Social Security benefit can collect the higher of the two, but not both.

Social Security Rules That Affect Benefit Amounts

Note: These rules don't apply to disability benefits.

Full retirement age.The amount of benefits a person receives depends on whether the benefits are first claimed before, at, or after what's called full retirement age:

  • For people born in 1937 or earlier, it's age 65.
  • For those born between 1938 and 1942, it's an additional two months after the 65th birthday for each year after 1937.
  • For those born between 1943 and 1954, it's age 66.

Early benefit claim. Retirement and dependents benefits may be claimed as early as age 62, survivor's benefits as early age 60. But the benefit amount is permanently reduced by a bit more than 0.5 percent for each month it's claimed before full retirement age. If someone has a long life expectancy, this permanent reduction can mean a loss of tens of thousands of dollars in benefits over a lifetime.

Earnings limit for early claims. If a person continues working before reaching full retirement age, an early claim might involve a penalty. Until full retirement age, Social Security reduces benefits by $1 for every $2 earned over a set yearly limit. As of 2012, the limit is $14,640. This applies only to income earned from current work, not from pensions, investments, or the like.

Delayed benefits. If a person delays claiming benefits until after full retirement age, those benefits would be permanently 4 to 8 percent higher for each year's delay, up to age 70 (after which there's no more increase). If someone doesn't need the income immediately, this delay can be a solid investment, particularly if the person has a long life expectancy.

Eligibility and Benefit Amounts for Different Social Security Programs

Retirement benefits. Persons who worked and earned even a minimal amount of money during ten different years are entitled to Social Security retirement benefits as early as age 62. The work doesn't need to have been in consecutive years -- someone who was in and out of the workforce can still qualify if the total is at least ten years.

Social Security retirement benefits for someone first claiming benefits at full retirement age in 2012 can reach about $2,400 per month, but most people's benefits are lower. To find out if someone qualifies for Social Security retirement benefits, and to get an estimate of how much those benefits would be at age 62, at full retirement age, and at age 70, go to the social Security Administration's website, at the Social Security statement page. This official estimate will also tell you how much the other spouse would be entitled to in dependents' or survivors' benefits.

Disability benefits. Someone who's of less than full retirement age but unable to work because of a physical or mental condition may be eligible for disability benefits. These benefits are roughly the same as the amount of retirement benefits the person would be entitled to at full retirement age. If one spouse in a married couple is eligible for disability benefits, the other spouse is eligible for dependents' benefits at age 62.

Disability benefits eligibility requires a certain number of work years and sets rules about what disabled actually means.

  • Number of working years required. Someone who became disabled at age 62 or older needs ten years of work to qualify for benefits. If he or she became disabled at a younger age, the work requirement is one year less for each year under age 62.
  • Disability defined. To qualify for benefits, a person must have a physical or mental impairment expected to last more than one year. The person must be unable to do not only the work he or she usually did but any "substantial gainful work." If someone has a severe disability included in Social Security's "listed impairments," that person may automatically qualify. If the person's disability is not on this list, Social Security measures substantial gainful work by whether the person could earn more than a specific monthly amount -- in 2012, it's set at $1,010.

To find out more about disability benefits and about how to begin the application process, visit the Social Security website's disability benefits pages.

Eligibility and Benefit Amounts for Dependents and Survivors

Dependents benefits. If a married person claims retirement or disability benefits, the other spouse is eligible for dependents benefits as early as age 62. These benefits are 50 percent of the retirement or disability benefits (less if claimed at less than full retirement age; see above). If the person cares for his or her minor or disabled child, the family may be eligible for more.

If a couple was divorced, one spouse is entitled to dependents benefits when the other spouse reaches full retirement age, if the marriage lasted at least ten years. To find out more about dependents benefits, visit the Social Security Administration's dependents benefits web pages.

Survivors benefits. If either spouse in a married couple qualified for retirement or disability benefits, when that person dies the other spouse becomes eligible for survivors benefits as early as age 60. The benefit amount is the same as the deceased spouse's retirement benefits (though it's reduced if claimed before the surviving spouse reaches full retirement age).

If one of the spouses died before reaching age 62, the other spouse may still qualify for survivor's benefits if the deceased spouse worked for a number of years. To find out about this and other eligibility rules, visit the Social Security Administration survivors benefits web pages.


Joseph L. Matthews

Joseph Matthews is an attorney and the author of numerous books, including Social Security, Medicare, and Government Pensions, Long-Term Care: How to Plan and Pay for It; How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim; and The Lawyer Who Blew up His Desk. See full bio