Eligibility for Social Security Benefits

A person’s eligibility for Social Security benefits is largely determined by the reason the applicant is seeking financial assistance.

While all applicants for Social Security benefits must meet some basic requirements, additional criteria must be met for each eligibility category.  The most common reason people apply for Social Security benefits in the United States is to receive Social Security assistance for retirement. Applications submitted for this form of Social Security will be evaluated based on their work history and age, among other application criteria. The main groups of recipients of Social Security benefits include retires, persons with disabilities and surviving family members of deceased workers and service personnel.

The process of applying for Social Security may seem daunting to some, but the Social Security Administration (SSA) clearly lays out the basic steps applicants for benefits should follow. Before submitting an application, interested applicants should make sure they meet all requirements for the program from which they are requesting funding. If unsure, applicants can request the help of a representative or benefits counselor to guide them through the application process. Some applicants with particularly difficult cases prefer to hire an attorney to help them apply for government benefits. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about eligibility requirements for Social Security benefits.

Eligibility for Social Security Retirement Benefits

The two most important application requirements that must be met for a Social Security benefit request to be successful have to do with the applicant’s work history and age at the time of submitting the application. Each American earns Social Security credits for each annual quarter that they work and pay taxes on at least $1,320 of wages.

To qualify for Social Security retirement benefits currently, applicants should have earned at least 40 Social Security credits by working for at least ten years throughout their lifetime. Applicants who have the minimum number of Social Security credits but who have yet to reach the national retirement age may be able to retire at a lower benefit rate at a younger age.

Workers who have contributed enough taxes to the Social Security system should also reach the necessary age in order to qualify for assistance. The current full retirement age for U.S. workers depends on when the worker was born. Soon-to-be retirees born before 1960 can enter full retirement at 65 or 66 years of age, depending on the their specific birth date. All other workers born in or after 1960 must wait until they reach 67 years of age before they can access their full Social Security retirement benefits. Applicants as young as 62 years of age with enough credits may be able to qualify for Social Security benefits at a lower rate than those who wait until later to retire.

Social Security beneficiaries will not receive their full benefit amount until they are the required retirement age. Workers who choose to work beyond the required retirement age should earn additional monetary benefits once they do choose to retire. This option is only available for workers extending their career up to 70 years of age. According to the SSA, Americans with enough Social Security credits can enter full retirement based on the following age schedule:

Birth Year Full Retirement Age
1943-1954 66 years of age
1955 66 years, 2 months of age
1956 66 years, 4 months of age
1957 66 years, 6 months of age
1958 66 years, 8 months of age
1959 66 years, 10 months of age
1960 and later 67 years of age or more

Social Security Eligibility for Persons with Disabilities

The eligibility requirements for applicants submitting a request for Social Security benefits based on having disability are significantly different than those for applicants submitting a request for retirement funds. In addition, the calculation of the applicant’s benefit amount is different when considering an applicant’s disability.

To qualify, the applicant must be able to demonstrate having a mental or physical disability that is expected to last longer than one year or result in the untimely death of the applicant. More specifically, applicants need to be able to show that their disability makes it impossible to perform work that the applicant once did or to adjust to other types of meaningful work due to the difficulties presented by the disability.

Individuals with disabilities that do not meet SSA conditions may be able to receive financial assistance from the federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) income, especially if they are still able to hold gainful employment. Applicants with short-term disabilities or injuries will not qualify for Social Security benefits. To receive Social Security funds, applicants will also need to be able to demonstrate having earned the minimum number of Social Security credits according to their age.

Like applications for Social Security retirement funds, applicants with disabilities will be asked to show valid proof of a disability along with the minimum number of credits to receive assistance. The SSA requires applicants for benefits based on a disability to have the following number of Social Security credits according to their age at the time of disability:

Age Applicant Became Disabled Required Amount of Social Security Credits
31 through 42 years of age 20
43 years of age 21
44 years of age 22
45 years of age 23
46 years of age 24
47 years of age 25
48 years of age 26
49 years of age 27
50 years of age 28
51 years of age 29
52 years of age 30
53 years of age 31
54 years of age 32
55 years of age 33
56 years of age 34
57 years of age 35
58 years of age 36
59 years of age 37
60 years of age 38
61 years of age 39
62 years of age or older 40

Social Security Eligibility for Surviving Family Members

Social Security benefits can be provided to surviving family members of eligible workers who are deceased. For a family member to be eligible, he or she must be able to demonstrate having a clear and direct relationship with the deceased adult, usually as a widow/widower, parent or child. Special circumstances may allow other family members like stepchildren and grandchildren to receive Social Security assistance through this program as well. The applicant must be able to show that they were financially and legally dependent on the deceased worker as well.

For children to qualify for Social Security benefits under this process, they must be unmarried, under 18 years of age, have become disabled before the age of 22 or still be in high school if 18 or 19 years of age. To receive Social Security benefits, spouses must be 60 years of age or older, the parent of children who are 16 years of age or younger or at least 50 years of age and disabled. Parents can be found eligible if they were dependent on the deceased and are at least 62 years of age.

Surviving family members submitting an application for Social Security benefits must adhere to the Social Security credit system as well. While it is not required that the deceased worker earn the 40 credits that retirees must earn before receiving benefits through the program, a certain number of credits should have been earned by the deceased according to her or his age.

Another way a deceased worker may qualify for benefits in this way is by having earned at least six Social Security credits in the three years before her or his death. In some cases, adult family members receiving benefits through the system may need to demonstrate having earned Social Security credits as well. Understanding how many tax credits your family member earned before her or his death is important for moving forward with these types of Social Security applications.

Working While Receiving Social Security Benefits for Retirement or Disability

Contrary to popular belief, many Social Security beneficiaries have the option of working part-time while still receiving their benefits. The amount of gainful employment that a person is entitled to have while receiving benefits depends on the reason the beneficiary was granted Social Security assistance and the amount of aid he or she is receiving. Staying partially employed while receiving benefits can actually increase the amount of benefits that the recipient earns after going into full retirement.

There are some limitations on how much employees should increase their workload or earnings just before they plan on going into retirement. In fact, a pensioners benefit amount can be reduced if he or she significantly increases his or her income in the monthly immediately preceding his or her retirement. Workers who choose to begin receiving Social Security benefits before their full age and continue working will have their contributions reduced by one dollar for every two dollars in earnings over the 2018 annual limit of $17,040. This deduction continues for some types of retired workers, resulting in one dollar of every three earned in wages being subtracted for any earnings over the annual limit of $45,360.