About 96% of U.S. workers will be eligible to receive Social Security benefits when they retire after paying into the system during their working years. Social Security retirement benefit eligibility is complicated; it’s highly dependent on the details of your specific situation. But here’s a general overview of what you need to be eligible.

Citizenship and Residency Requirements

If you’re a citizen of a foreign country but you work legally in the United States in a job where you pay Social Security taxes, you can accumulate Social Security credits just like a U.S. citizen and be eligible for retirement benefits. However, workers in certain visa categories won’t earn Social Security credits and earning Social Security-like benefits in another country might affect the retirement income you receive from both programs. 

If you’re considering retiring abroad or traveling extensively overseas during retirement, you’ll still be able to receive benefits in most cases. The U.S. government won’t send money to certain countries: Azerbaijan, Belarus, Cuba, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, North Korea, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. If one of these nations is in your long-term retirement plans, you’ll need to make special arrangements to avoid disruptions in your benefit payments. (For related reading, see The Best Places To Retire In France and How To Plan Retirement In Ecuador.)

Years of Work Required

Anyone born in 1929 or later needs 40 credits, equal to 10 years of work, to qualify for Social Security’s retirement benefits. You don’t have to earn credits consecutively, so if you’re laid off or temporarily leave the workforce for another reason, you won’t lose the credits you’ve already earned. You can see how many credits you’ve earned and make sure your employment and income records are correct by creating a “my Social Security” account at www.socialsecurity.gov. You can start claiming Social Security benefits once you reach the minimum retirement age even if you’re still working. (For further reading, see Can I collect Social Security if I still have a job?)

Age Requirements

You must reach what the Social Security Administration calls “full retirement age” before you can start receiving full retirement benefits. Depending on when you were born, full retirement age could be anywhere from age 65, for those born in 1937 or earlier, to age 67, for those born in 1960 or later. The youngest you can start claiming benefits is 62, but you’ll only receive partial benefits at this age. If you don’t need the income right away, you can delay claiming benefits up to age 70 and get an overpayment beyond your full benefit (see Tips On Delaying Social Security Benefits).

The closer to age 62 you begin claiming benefits, the smaller your monthly benefit, and the closer to age 70, the larger your monthly benefit. For example, if you were born in 1950 and began claiming benefits at age 62, your monthly benefit would be 25% less than if you waited until your full retirement age, 66, to receive benefits. Wait until 70 and your benefit will be 32% higher than your full-retirement-age benefit.

The SSA adjusts your benefit based on your retirement age because it assumes it will pay you for more years if you start taking benefits when you’re younger and for fewer years if you start taking benefits when you’re older. The idea is that regardless of when you start taking benefits, the total amount of Social Security income you receive over your remaining lifetime should be about the same. 

Family Benefits

The spouse of someone who is already receiving Social Security retirement income can start receiving benefits as early as age 62. Spouses who didn’t work or who earned less than their partner can receive benefits based on their partner’s income. If you did work, but your own benefits are lower than what you would receive if you claimed spousal benefits, the SSA will adjust your monthly payment upward to compensate for the difference. Unremarried divorcees may be eligible for benefits at age 62 as an ex-spouse if the marriage lasted 10 years or longer. Spousal benefits can be as low as 32.5% for claims before full retirement age – and as high as 50% for claims at full retirement age. (To learn more, read How Does My Spousal Social Security Benefit Work?)

Spouses caring for a child who is younger than 16 or disabled don’t have to wait until age 62 to receive benefits. What's more, the disabled, unmarried adult child of a worker receiving benefits may also be eligible to receive Social Security income. Dependent children, too, may be eligible to receive benefits based on a parent’s benefits. Widows and widowers are eligible to start claiming benefits a bit earlier, at age 60 – or at age 50 for disabled widows and widowers. (Learn more in When is it optimal to take my widow’s Social Security benefit?)

The Bottom Line

A number of factors influence your Social Security retirement benefit eligibility. In general, if you or your spouse work legally in the United States for at least 10 years for an employer who collects Social Security taxes from your paycheck, you’ll be eligible for benefits. How much you receive will depend on how much you earned and when you start claiming benefits. Widows, widowers, ex-spouses and dependent or disabled children may also be eligible to receive benefits.

If you need help understanding your eligibility and how Social Security benefits will affect your retirement plans, contact the Social Security Administration or a professional financial planner. (For more information, see Where can I look for a financial planner? and 7 Steps To Evaluate A Financial Planner. For to find information on Social Security, read Understanding the Social Security Website and Using The Social Security Website To Get Answers.




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