Most retirees depend on Social Security for at least some of their income. Retirement benefits become available as early as age 62 and are meant to replace about 40% of the money you earned while working. But not every senior is automatically entitled to receive them since they're an earned benefit. 

Social Security benefits are based on your work record, so you may not qualify for them if you haven't worked and paid into the Social Security system. All current workers need to know whether they qualify or not, so it's helpful to know how long you have to work to become eligible.

You should also know there are some circumstances where you can get benefits without the requisite work record, or even if you've never worked at all.

Older working woman stocking shelves.

Image source: Getty Images.

How long you must work for Social Security retirement benefits

To qualify for Social Security, you need to earn 40 work credits. You earn a work credit when you pay Social Security taxes on a set amount of money. In 2020, for example, you get one credit for each $1,410 in earnings subject to Social Security tax. 

You're allowed to earn a maximum of four credits per year, regardless of how high your total salary is. That means you have to work for at least 10 years and earn the maximum number of work credits during each of them to qualify for Social Security retirement income. 

If you work for the minimum 10 years, your benefits likely won't be very high, since the amount you receive is based on average wages over your 35 highest-earning years after adjusting for inflation. You'd have 25 years of $0 wages factored in if you worked for only a decade. But there is a Social Security minimum benefit to ensure most retirees get at least enough money to stay out of poverty. 

You may be able to qualify on a spouse's work history if not your own

If you don't have a long enough work history to get benefits, it's possible you'll be entitled to receive Social Security on your spouse's work history.

Spousal benefits are available if you're married, or divorced after at least 10 years of marriage. They entitle you to receive up to 50% of your spouse's benefit. If your current or former spouse has passed away, you may also be able to claim survivors benefits

Don't assume you won't get benefits just because you didn't work. Spousal or survivors benefits can provide thousands of dollars a year in annual income if you're entitled to them as a retiree. 

Make sure you understand how Social Security benefits work

If you'll need to claim Social Security benefits on your own work history, it's very important you work long enough (and pay into the system long enough) to earn a sufficient number of work credits.

If you can't qualify on your own record, you should also know your rights when it comes to spousal and survivors benefits so you don't pass up retirement income that could be available to you. 

You can check with the Social Security Administration to find out about your options for claiming benefits and can review your work record online at mySocialSecurity. If you're still not sure what benefits you're entitled to, talking to a financial adviser may be worth it.