Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Social Security: How Long Do I Have to Work to Get Benefits?

By Dan Caplinger - Updated May 30, 2018 at 3:50PM

You’re reading a free article with opinions that may differ from The Motley Fool’s Premium Investing Services. Become a Motley Fool member today to get instant access to our top analyst recommendations, in-depth research, investing resources, and more. Learn More

There are several nuances to how long of a work history you need for Social Security to kick in.

About 60 million people get Social Security benefits, either because they're retired, disabled, or entitled to receive payments as a family member of a qualifying worker. But one of the most common questions about Social Security is how long you have to work in order to get benefits. The answer depends on the type of benefit you're claiming and the length of time can vary greatly depending on your particular situation.

Social Security card and money

Image source: Getty Images.

The general rule for retirement benefits

In order to be eligible for Social Security benefits, you have to accumulate a certain number of Social Security credits. You can earn up to four credits each year, and the amount of earnings you need in order to get one credit adjusts for inflation. For 2016, $1,260 in earned income will get you one Social Security credit, meaning that anyone with $5,040 or more in wages, salary, or other earnings from work will get their four credits for the year.

To be eligible for retirement benefits from Social Security, you need a total of 40 credits. Most workers cover that requirement by working for 10 years, earning enough in each year to get the maximum available four credits annually. For those with lower earnings, it can take a bit longer, but there's no requirement that you earn the credits in consecutive years.

Disability benefits and work credits

The rules for disability benefits under Social Security are different. In particular, more credits are needed for those who are in the late stages of their careers, but younger workers don't need as many. Below, you'll find a table that gives the details.

Age When Disabled

Credits Needed

Minimum Work Needed

Before 24



24 to 30

Special Rule*

Special Rule*

31 to 42






























62 or older



Data source: Social Security Administration. * Before age 24, you need six credits in the most recent three years. From 24 to 30, you need credits for half of the time between age 21 and when you became disabled.

The rationale for this is simple: the younger you are when you get disabled, the more difficult it will be to have a large number of Social Security credits already accumulated. The compromise means that you don't have to have worked constantly during young adulthood, but you do need a reasonable amount of work history.

Also, note one key rule: unless you are blind, you need to have earned at least 20 of the required credits in the 10 years immediately before you become disabled. This can prevent early retirees from getting disability benefits if they become disabled long after they decided to quit work.

Work credits and survivor benefits from Social Security

For survivor benefits, the same general rationale applies. A young worker who dies unexpectedly won't have had time to accumulate 40 credits, but a surviving spouse and children will still need financial support under the system. As a result, Social Security requires a smaller number of credits depending on how old people are when they pass away.

For whatever reason, however, the Social Security Administration isn't nearly as open about the exact requirements for survivor benefits as with disability benefits. All of the SSA's own information merely states the general rule that up to 40 credits, or 10 years of work, are necessary but that it depends on age at the time of death. Those who were "very young" when they die will leave their family members eligible if they worked for six credits in the three years preceding death. Those special rules generally apply to those who have children who are eligible and whose spouse is caring for the children.

Social Security benefits are vital, but there are eligibility requirements. Knowing which rules apply to you is important in order to make sure you'll get the benefits you count on and expect.

Invest Smarter with The Motley Fool

Join Over 1 Million Premium Members Receiving…

  • New Stock Picks Each Month
  • Detailed Analysis of Companies
  • Model Portfolios
  • Live Streaming During Market Hours
  • And Much More
Get Started Now

Related Articles

Motley Fool Returns

Motley Fool Stock Advisor

Market-beating stocks from our award-winning analyst team.

Stock Advisor Returns
S&P 500 Returns

Calculated by average return of all stock recommendations since inception of the Stock Advisor service in February of 2002. Returns as of 07/01/2022.

Discounted offers are only available to new members. Stock Advisor list price is $199 per year.

Premium Investing Services

Invest better with The Motley Fool. Get stock recommendations, portfolio guidance, and more from The Motley Fool's premium services.