How Do You Become Eligible for Social Security Benefits?

Understanding the basics of social security entitlements

By Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on January 24, 2023

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Social Security is a federal program directed by the Social Security Administration (SSA). Social security provides vital financial support and benefits to eligible individuals, including: 

  • retirees through Social Security Retirement Benefits 
  • individuals with disabilities through Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) 
  • individuals with limited income through Supplemental Security Income (SSI) 
  • surviving spouses or family members of eligible workers through survivor benefits 

What are the eligibility requirements to collect social security? What is the process for getting benefits? This article will cover the basics of getting your benefits. 

What Are Retirement Benefits? 

“Under social security law, the general umbrella of insurance benefits is [called] RSDI: Retirement, Survivor, Disability Insurance,” says Minnesota elder law attorney Laura J. Zdychnec.  

Retirement benefits are monthly checks that replace some or all of an individual’s income as they transition to retirement.  

Social security cash benefits help older individuals cover their cost of living as they work less or stop working entirely. 

Who Qualifies for Retirement Benefits? 

“People are eligible to claim social security retirement benefits starting at age 62,” says Zdychnec. You must either be a U.S. citizen or lawfully present in the United States to qualify. 

“In order to claim social security retirement benefits, you must have a particular number of work history credits. In other words, you must pay into the system through payroll withholding and so forth,” she adds. 

Individuals need 40 work credits to qualify for full social security retirement benefits.  

Since 1978, social security rules have said that individuals can gain up to four credits per year (but no more). Credits are tied to a person’s amount of earnings, and the required amount to get a credit can vary from year to year.  

In 2023, for example, it takes $1,640 of earned income to get one credit (and $6,560 to earn four credits for the year). You can work full-time or part-time as long as you get the required amount of income to earn credits. 

Given the cap on the number of earnable credits per year, it takes 10 years of work to earn 40 credits and receive full retirement benefits. If you earn more than 40 credits over the course of your working life, that doesn’t mean you get more benefits when you retire. You just have to get enough credits to get the full benefit. 

“So, people who can claim social security retirement have to be at least age 62 and have to have a sufficient work history to qualify for that insurance benefit,” says Zdychnec. 

“The other social security benefit is called Supplemental Security Income (SSI). This is needs-based social security,” she adds.  

It’s the federal safety net that provides a minimum amount of income for individuals who are either: 

  • over the age of 65 
  • blind 
  • certified disabled  

Individuals who qualify for SSI benefits “have not paid into the system sufficiently to qualify for social security insurance retirement or disability benefits.”  

How Much Do Elders Get for Social Security? 

Monthly social security benefits are calculated using an individual’s average indexed monthly earnings (AIME). Various factors go into calculating an individual’s benefit amount based on their earnings record. Currently, the maximum that an individual can receive per month in social security retirement benefits is $3,627. 

Although individuals can start receiving some retirement benefits at age 62, full retirement benefits only kick in once an individual has reached full retirement age.  

“An individual’s monthly benefit amount increases depending on their full retirement age, which varies depending on their birth date,” says Zdychnec. 

For example, if you were born

  • between 1943-1954, your full retirement age is 66 years old. 
  • in 1958, your full retirement age is 66 years and 8 months old. 
  • after 1960, your full retirement age is 67 years old. 

Do You Need a Lawyer? 

“Most elder law attorneys, as well as attorneys who focus on social security law, don’t get involved on the application end,” says Zdychnec. Rather, “it’s only in circumstances when someone has been denied benefits that an attorney helps them get a back payment.” 

When getting an attorney’s help for long-term planning, it’s essential to understand the specific kind of social security benefit you are receiving. Different types of benefits lead to different planning strategies.  

“In the area of elder law, we frequently have clients or the family members of clients who say they’re on social security. It’s always a challenge to dig into that statement and figure out what kind of social security benefit they are actually receiving,” says Zdychnec. “It’s very important to understand the benefit in order to figure out how they’re positioned in terms of further planning.” 

For example, Zdychnec says that in her practice, “we’re frequently trying to distinguish people who are receiving social security disability insurance from other types of benefits.” Disability insurance is not a means-based benefit, so a person’s “income won’t be jeopardized if, for example, they receive an inheritance.”  

However, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is needs-based and has very rigid rules. “In many states, SSI is directly tied to a person’s Medicaid assistance eligibility.”  

Because of the different rules governing different types of benefits, “It’s important for elder law attorneys to carefully ask [a client] these questions. We want to make sure we aren’t giving information that will jeopardize the client’s benefits.” 

Questions for an Elder Law Attorney 

Many elder law attorneys provide free case reviews for potential clients. Alternatively, consultation fees may be counted toward future legal services. 

These consultations allow you to get legal advice and consider if you need legal help addressing issues related to your social security benefits and payment. 

To get the most out of a consultation, ask informed questions such as: 

  • What are your attorney’s fees and billing options? 
  • Have I paid enough social security taxes to qualify for full benefits? 
  • What types of benefits do I qualify for? 
  • What will my social security benefit amount be? 
  • What is the definition of disability for purposes of disability insurance? 

Once you have met with a lawyer and gotten your questions answered, you can begin an attorney-client relationship. 

Look for an elder law attorney in the Super Lawyers directory for legal help with elder abuse issues.  

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