Social Security retirement benefits are an important source of income for the majority of older Americans, but not every senior is eligible. In fact, in order to become eligible, you need to work and dish out payroll taxes on wages. 

There's a minimum threshold amount that's required to earn your eligibility, though. And the amount is going up a little bit in 2021. Here's what you should know about the change.

Social Security card sitting on top of money.

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You'll need a little more money next year to earn work credits

Many call Social Security an earned benefit because you become eligible for benefits by earning money and paying taxes on it, receiving what are known as work credits in the process. Specifically, you'll need to work in a job subject to Social Security tax and make enough money to earn at least 40 work credits over your life if you want to receive Social Security retirement benefits. There are different rules for Social Security disability benefits eligibility, as the amount of work credits you'd need to qualify depends on your age at the time you become disabled. 

You can earn a maximum of four work credits annually, no matter how much you earn. There's also a minimum earnings threshold to meet in order to earn each credit. For 2021, that threshold is rising.

  • In 2020, you could earn one work credit for each $1,410 in eligible earnings, up to the maximum of four annually. That means you would need to earn $5,640 or more to earn the maximum four work credits available for the year.
  • In 2021, however, you'll need to earn $1,470 for each work credit, so you won't get the maximum four credits unless your earnings equal or exceed $5,880.

With the earnings threshold going up a little bit, those who are earning a very low income may not necessarily earn the full four credits this year, even if they did a year prior. This can affect future benefits eligibility. 

What if you don't earn enough work credits? 

If you don't earn enough work credits throughout your career to qualify for Social Security on your own work record, it's still possible to receive some benefits based on a family member's work history. For example, if you're married or you divorce after a marriage that's lasted at least 10 years, you may be able to qualify for survivors or spousal benefits.

It's also important to note that spousal and survivor benefits are available to you even if you do have enough work credits to qualify for your own benefit. While you can't get both your own benefit and either of these benefits at the same time, you could possibly get a higher benefit by claiming on your spouse's record if he or she made more money than you did. 

Unfortunately, the Social Security Administration will not always provide you with the information you need to make the best decision on maximizing your benefits. It's up to you to make sure you get the full amount of money you're entitled to, so don't assume that you're out of luck if you don't earn enough work credits. Learn about survivor and spousal benefits and make an informed choice about when and how to claim them if you didn't earn enough work credits of your own.