To determine who is eligible for various benefits, the Social Security Administration (SSA) uses a system of Social Security credits that establish whether minimum work requirements have been met. Typically, the number of credits required in order to be eligible for benefits is 40. Credits are based on the amount of time someone spends in the workforce and, to a lesser extent, on compensation.

For 2020, the maximum number of credits that can be earned in any given year is four, but because you only need to earn $1,410 in compensation to acquire each credit, it is possible to earn all four annual credits in a short amount of time. Once you have earned $5,640 in taxable income, you have acquired the maximum number of credits for the year.

Key Takeaways

  • Social Security credits are used to determine eligibility and benefit amount for retirement benefits.
  • For 2020, the maximum number of credits that can be earned in a given year is four and earned compensation of $1,410 is required for each credit.
  • A minimum of 40 credits is required to be eligible for retirement benefits.
  • Credits for disability benefits vary by age.

How Social Security Credits Accrue

Because you can’t earn more than four credits per year, it takes a minimum of 10 years in the workforce to accrue the credits necessary to apply for benefits. As this credit limit applies to everyone, regardless of income, the system levels the playing field somewhat, so that those who have very large incomes are not able to take advantage of benefits earlier than those with more-meager earnings.

Credits for the Disabled

There are some situations in which benefits may be granted when the standard 40-credit threshold has not been met. One such scenario applies to the payment of disability benefits, known as Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). While the 40-credit rule holds for those aged 62 or older, if you become disabled at a younger age, you may qualify for disability benefits with fewer credits.

If you become disabled before age 24, for example, you can apply for benefits with only six credits, as long as they were earned within the three years prior to your disability. For those who are between 24 and 31, eligible applicants must have credit for working half the number of years between age 21 and the age at which they became disabled. This means that if you become disabled at age 29, you will need to have worked for four years, or 16 total credits, within the eight years since you turned 21.

Fast Fact

You can only earn a maximum of four credits per year, so it takes a minimum of 10 years to qualify for Social Security benefits.

For those over the age of 31 who become disabled, credit requirements vary by age, from as few as 20 up to the maximum requirement of 40. You can see the specific amounts for each age on the Social Security Administration’s website. Unless you are legally blind, at least 20 of these credits must have been earned in the 10 years leading up to your disability. 

In addition, even if you have not met the 40-credit minimum, your family may be eligible to collect survivor’s benefits on your account in the event of your untimely death. Benefits may be payable to your children and your spouse who cares for them if you have acquired six credits within the three years preceding your death.

Applying for Social Security

Depending on the type of benefits for which you are eligible, you may be able to apply online at the SSA website, over the phone, or by making an appointment at your local Social Security office. The SSA website also has updated information about credit requirements for disability benefits, as well as online calculators to help you estimate your potential benefit amount.