Social Security Eligibility: How Do You Qualify?

By Markets Fool.com


Source: Social Security Administration

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When it comes to Social Security, there are a host of benefits you might be eligible for -- more than just the classic retirement benefit. There are, for example, disability benefits, spousal benefits, survivor's benefits if your spouse has passed away, children's benefits, and supplemental benefits if you're 65 or older and blind or disabled. You may qualify for more than you expected. Read on to learn more about Social Security eligibility.

Retirement benefit eligibility

Obviously, you need to be of a certain age to qualify to receive Social Security retirement ("Old Age and Survivors Insurance") benefits. You can start collecting your benefits as early as age 62, but they will be smaller checks than you'd get by waiting until your "full" retirement age. That age depends on when you were born. For those born in 1960 or later, the age is 67. (It's 65 for those born in 1937 or earlier, and for those born between 1937 and 1960, it's somewhere in between.) You can also elect to delay beginning to receive benefits, until age 70. Doing so will net you a bigger monthly check for each year you delay beyond your full retirement age.

Same-sex couples can qualify for benefits, too. (Source: Social Security Administration.)

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There's one more eligibility requirement: You need to have paid enough into the system to be able to get money out of it. The current requirement is 40 "credits." You earn credits along with your income, and you can earn up to four credits per year. For 2015, you earn one credit for every $1,220 you earn, so all you need is $4,880 in earnings to rack up four credits. For most people, their 40 credits can be earned in just 10 years. (Fewer credits are required for other kinds of benefits.)

How much you get

Now that you know how you qualify for your benefits, you probably would like to know how much you can expect to collect. Well, the Social Security Administration used to send out an annual estimate of your future Social Security benefits, based on your work history to date. A while back it stopped doing so, instead encouraging people to check for that information online by opening a "my Social Security" account. Just last year, though, it changed that policy, announcing that it will now send out a paper estimate again, to those who have not created "my Social Security" accounts, but only when they turn 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55, and 60 -- and every year after that. (The paper is nice, but if you open a "my Social Security" account, you can look up your estimated benefits as often as you'd like, and you can print them out, too.)

As a rule, though, the more money you earned during your working life, the bigger your benefit checks will be. Those who worked fewer years may also end up with smaller checks for the same reason.

In 2015, the average monthly benefit check for a retiree is $1,328, and for a retired couple, it's $2,176. That's $15,936 per year for individuals and $26,112 for couples.

Sign up for a "my Social Security" account to check up on your estimated benefits (Source: Social Security Administration.)

Keep in mind

Remember that there are other kinds of benefits you can get from Social Security, as I mentioned. Look into them if you think you might qualify.

Know, too, that even if you only expect to qualify for basic retirement benefits, you should spend some time reading up on and thinking about when to start collecting your benefits, as that will dictate the size of your check. You might also learn more about spousal benefits and strategies that couples can employ to maximize their benefit income.

The topic of Social Security might not seem that exciting, but it's a critical part of most people's retirement security, and collecting checks every month is at least a little exciting.

The article Social Security Eligibility: How Do You Qualify? originally appeared on Fool.com.

Longtime Fool specialist Selena Maranjian, whom you can follow on Twitter,has no position in any stocks mentioned. Nor does The Motley Fool. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.