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 personĀ  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

6 months, said...

Hi My name is Alfred. I have been on SS for 8 years. I am taking on a news paper route that pays $1250.00 to $1300.00 a month. this is dependent on a variety of factors, customers, # of days in the month, etc. i make $1364.00 a month. how much is to much to make? A route generally is 20 hours. or less, per week.

over 1 year, said...

Im 68yrs old, got to work , recieve usual retirement , is there any amount that I shouldn't make restrictions ? ....seems like the info offered doesn't cover my situation ?

almost 3 years, said...

Need medical attorney help me obtain medical guardianship for my disabled adult son and to help maximize our social security benefits? I recently stumbled across information about Childhood Disability benefits on the Social Security website and applied for them on his behalf, as I am Representative Payee. (A decision is pending). Would greatly appreciate any assistance you can provide. Thank you. Joyce

almost 4 years, said...

I wish this was true. However, I worked for the State off Illinois and paid into the State Pension fund. I did not pay into Social Security. My husband worked and paid into Social Security. When our retirement time came, I drew only my State pension because the law had somehow changed so that unless I was a certain age when it changed, I could not draw on my husband. He later died and now I do not have Social Security but only a small State pension which I paid into. As a result we have a lot of people who never worked a day in their life but who are drawing Social Security benefits and believe me, I resent it!

about 4 years, said...

I recently took in a homeless 19 year old young man whose parents died when he was approximately 8 years old. Should he have been qualified to receive any benefits and if so, is it retroactive? Thank you so much!! Diane

over 5 years, said...

My mothers life is being totally controlled by a less than honest guardian. She has taken my Mother to a place that my husband and I are not allowed to know. The judge would not allow the guardians, phone information and explained as useless hear-say in his court. Sister Roberta, the youngest has been dipping into my Moms funds and living off of Mom. She and her husband moved up here from California when they realized that Roberta's father was quite ill at 96years. So a guardian took my Moms case. The guardian has been paid from Mom's money. Sister Roberta and family lived at Mom's place. They filed for bankruptcy. So sister Roberta and family moved into Moms. She was beating Mom when Mom was trying to open her own door to me. We would take Mom on pre-arranged visits that Mom enjoyed when she was younger.

almost 6 years, said...

I lost my husband six years ago to MS. A little over a year ago i now find myself disabled. I have lost my job and health insurance. I applied for myself a year ago. I would receive more if I collected his but I am not sure if I can get his. I am going to be 53 in two weeks. I held my job for over 17 years and now struggle for the dr and medicines I need and need to know what direction to go. Should i be trying for his or am i only allowed mine. We are both married before and who will be able to receive his benefits his ex wife or me since we were together when he passed away. My ex husband and i were married over 25 years. Am I allowed his benefits if he dies first. He is not remarried by is with the woman that split up our marriage. I just need to know what steps i should take. Both of them made more the myself.

almost 7 years, said...

I can paid any thing for house keeping,a letter from my doctor say i under able to do any strenuous work due to all my health issues.Is it any way to get help with this,husband has in the years cancer heart attack, cops,50 year-sold son is disable liver not function,on disable just a small income he can not help his self much.

almost 7 years, said...

Good to know what I am entitled to with Social Security.

almost 8 years, said...

I worked for Los Angeles County as a social worker from 1963 to 1977. I opted for LA Retirement rather than SSI. But my retirement is so small....518 a month. Am I still eligible for SSI even so?

almost 8 years, said...

My husband and I are seperated. Should he die will i be elgible for his social security

over 8 years, said...

I am acquainted with a married couple in their 90's. The wife recently died. Her social security income was greater than her husbands. Will the husband be eligible for the social security payments that the wife was receiving. Thank you in advance for your assistance. Fred Kraft