For millions of Americans, Social Security provides a key source of income. But you don't automatically qualify to receive Social Security benefits. To make a claim for these benefits on your own record, you need to earn them.

The mechanism by which you qualify for benefits involves earning a certain number of Social Security credits. Many people don't know anything about the credit requirement, but without enough credits, you won't be able to get Social Security when the time comes. Below, we'll look more closely at Social Security credits and the rules in effect for 2020.

How do I earn a Social Security credit?

Social Security credits are the backbone of eligibility requirements for the program. The Social Security Administration makes adjustments to the amount of money you have to earn in wages, salary, or self-employment income in order to qualify to receive one Social Security credit. For 2020, the amount of earnings required will be $1,410. That's up by $50 from the 2019 amount.

Three Social Security cards with a brass key on top.

Image source: Getty Images.

You can earn up to four Social Security credits each year. That means that you'll max out your credits if you earn at least $5,640 in 2020. It makes no difference for your eligibility for Social Security whether you earn $6,000, $60,000, or $600,000 -- you'll still be limited to the same four-credit maximum.

How many Social Security credits do I need?

The number of credits you need depends on which benefit you want to claim. For retirement benefits, the rules are simple: You need 40 credits over the course of your work history. That equates to 10 years of work for most people who are able to earn the full four credits each year.

For disability benefits, the number of credits you need depends on your age. The following rules apply:

  • 40 credits is always enough to qualify, regardless of age.
  • If you're between 31 and 42 years old, you need 20 credits.
  • For every two years that you're older than 42, you need two additional credits beyond 20.
  • Those between 24 and 31 need to have two credits per year since age 21.
  • Those younger than 24 need six credits over the preceding three years.

Finally, for survivor benefits, 40 credits will always be enough for family members to qualify to receive Social Security. If you've earned six credits in the three years before your death, that also works, and family members of those who die at a relatively young age may require fewer than 40 credits.

Does all work earn Social Security credits?

If you work at a job that withholds money from your paycheck to pay for Social Security payroll taxes, then the wages and salary you earn there counts toward getting credits. Similarly, those who pay self-employment taxes on their income from self-employment also earn Social Security credits.

The most common case in which work doesn't earn Social Security credits involves public sector employment for a state or local government entity. Many workers for state and local government employers participate in their own pension plan and have money withheld to finance that pension rather than Social Security benefits. As a result, earnings from those jobs don't count toward getting credits.

Get more information on Social Security credits

If you want to know more about how many credits you have, check out your Social Security statement. It has useful historical information about your work record and can help you determine whether you qualify for benefits yet.

Most Americans depend on Social Security, so you want it to be there when you need it. By understanding Social Security credits, you can make sure you'll qualify when the time comes.