Whether you realize it or not, the Social Security program plays a critical role in keeping millions of beneficiaries out of poverty. As of September 2018, more than 62 million people were receiving a monthly Social Security check. Of these folks, more than 22 million were kept above the federal poverty line as a result of their payout. It's simply that important a program.

Yet you might be surprised to learn that there's a lot of confusion with regard to how exactly you can qualify for a Social Security benefit.

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How to qualify for a Social Security benefit check

To be clear, you don't qualify for a benefit simply because you were born in the United States or have immigrated here and become a citizen. In other words, Social Security isn't an entitlement benefit that you're simply given. You have to either earn it or fit some special criteria in order to receive it.

Here are the five ways you can qualify to receive a Social Security benefit.

1. Work to earn your retirement benefit

Probably the most common way to qualify for a Social Security benefit is by working. In order to receive a retired worker benefit at or after age 62, a worker will have to accrue 40 lifetime work credits, of which a maximum of four can be earned each year. Or, in other words, you'll have to work at least 10 years to qualify for a Social Security retirement benefit.

However, the bar to earn these work credits has been set pretty low by the Social Security Administration (SSA). In 2018, you'll earn a work credit for every $1,320 in wages. Put in another context, if you've earned $5,280 in 2018, you'll have maxed out your lifetime work credits for the year. Keep in mind that these credits become a little tougher to earn each year -- it'll take $5,440 in earned income to max out your credits in 2019 -- but are otherwise still easy to accrue.

Of course, you'll probably want to work more than just the prerequisite 10 years to receive a benefit. That's because the SSA will take your 35 highest-earning, inflation-adjusted years into account when calculating your benefit at full retirement age. This should incentivize you to work at least 35 years, if not more, and earn as much as you can in those years you do work.

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2. Work to receive a disability insurance payout

Another way to receive a Social Security benefit is via the Disability Insurance Trust. In September, nearly 8.6 million workers were deemed long-term disabled and received a benefit check. According to the SSA, more than a quarter of today's 20-year-olds will become disabled prior to reaching their full retirement age of 67.

But just as we saw above, you aren't simply given a disability benefit because of a long-term injury or illness. Instead, you'll have to earn it through your work history.

Ideally, you'll have earned 40 lifetime credits prior to becoming disabled, automatically qualifying you for a Social Security benefit based on your earnings history. However, not everyone is going to have the opportunity to reach 40 lifetime credits, and the SSA knows this. That's why there's a staggered scale allowing younger adults to qualify despite having earned less than 40 work credits.

Generally speaking, though, you'll need to have earned 20 credits in the last 10 years, ending with the year you became disabled, to qualify for a benefit. 

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3. Receive a survivor's benefit based on your spouse's work and earnings history

Although it's not something we'd probably like to think about, the Social Security program provides survivor's insurance protection for 96% of working Americans between the ages of 20 and 49. This "protection" is in the event of an untimely death, upon which a surviving spouse and/or children could be provided a benefit based on the deceased worker's earnings history.

What you may not realize is that these survivor benefits are also dependent on the deceased workers' accrued lifetime credits and the age of the surviving spouse and/or children.

As with the above examples, it's easiest if the deceased worker has already earned 40 work credits, because then there's no question that a surviving spouse and/or children would be entitled to a benefit. But for those workers who pass away prior to reaching 40 earned credits, a staggered scale exists that allows more families to qualify for a benefit if a younger worker dies.

Similarly, widows and widowers typically aren't eligible to begin receiving a survivor's payout until age 60 at the earliest, or age 50 if disabled. Some special rules exist for widows and widowers caring for a disabled child under the age of 16, regardless of age. Likewise, unmarried children of the deceased younger than age 18, or older than 18 but with a disability that began before age 22, can qualify for a survivor's benefit. 

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4. Marry for at least 10 years

A fourth way to qualify for a Social Security benefit is to marry into it, so to speak. For instance, should your spouse pass away, you could potentially qualify for a survivor benefit, assuming that survivor benefit would pay out more than what you'd earn from your own retirement benefit on a monthly basis.

But if you're divorced, were married to your former spouse for at least 10 years, are at least age 62, and you haven't remarried, then you can still qualify for a benefit based on your former spouse's earnings history. You can even qualify for a benefit if your former spouse has remarried. Best of all, the benefit that a divorced spouse receives doesn't reduce what's paid to the primary worker.

As you can imagine, there are some caveats. As noted, the benefit you'd receive from your ex-spouse would have to be greater on a monthly basis than what you'd receive as a retirement benefit. Also, if you remarry, there's a pretty good chance you'll no longer qualify to receive a benefit from your former spouse unless your later marriage ends (i.e., annulment, divorce, or death). 

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5. Be a child of qualifying age

Finally, simply being a child under certain circumstances can qualify someone for a Social Security benefit. Generally speaking, a child can qualify for a benefit if they meet the following criteria:

  • Is under the age of 18, or up to age 19 if a full-time high school student
  • Is 18 years or older and disabled prior to reaching age 22
  • Is unmarried
  • Has a parent who is disabled or retired and eligible to receive a Social Security benefit

If a parent becomes disabled or retires, a qualifying child is eligible to receive up to 50% of their parent's full retirement benefit. If the parent passes away, the survivor benefit paid to the qualifying child could be as much as 75% of the deceased worker's full-retirement-age benefit. 

In sum, Social Security may not be an entitlement, but it sure does offer a number of ways for people to qualify for a benefit.

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